Photo courtesy of Lunar Cubit, the winning team. The design team included Robert Flottemesch and his collaborators, Jen DeNike, Johanna Ballhaus, and Adrian P. De Luca.
Is it art or a renewable energy generator?
If Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian, the founders of Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), have their way, soon you won’t know the difference. Judging from the host of multidisciplinary teams who entered their 2010 contest to create public art installations capable of generating clean energy, that day may be closer than you think.
Certainly the impact of recent Middle East turmoil on oil prices makes a strong case for decreased dependence on foreign oil. But, argues Ferry, the stakes are far higher than the costs per barrel: “We can’t continue to expend irreplaceable unsustainable natural resources without creating serious instability in everyone’s life and destroying our natural habitats.”
To help people envision a new path, Ferry and Monoian invited artists, architects, scientists, landscape architects, and engineers to work together to create installations, which through their beauty would “stimulate and challenge the mind of the viewer.”
Free to choose from one of three sites in the United Arab Emirates, the teams were asked to devise schemes for converting clean energy from nature into electricity that could be transmitted to the existing power grid without harming the surrounding ecosystems. The designs also had to be constructible using technology that could be scalable and tested.
Solar (ECO) System, submitted by Antonio Maccà and Flavio Masi.
“By inspiring the world about what renewable energy generation could look like, we hope to ease people’s concerns,” says Ferry, who believes that countering aesthetic objections is a first step toward clearing the way for the financial incentives and public policy support needed to spark a viable commitment to green energy.
The winning design, Lunar Cubit, created by engineer-sculptor Robert Flottemesch and his collaborators, Jen DeNike, Johanna Ballhaus, and Adrian P. De Luca, was announced on January 19, 2011 at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.
Light Sanctuary, submitted by Martina Decker and Peter Yeadon.
The scheme, which if built will rise out of the desert outside of Abu Dhabi, was unveiled along with 30 or so other submissions at the exhibition hall in Masdar City, the renewable-energy powered city that sponsored the competition.
An idea that originally came out of Flottemesch’s fascination with the Great Pyramids, Lunar Cubit is a deeply personal piece. A sculptor by training, Flottemesch began working in engineering after graduation. Then, fueled by his interest in solar energy, he sought out a job at Hudson Valley Clean Energy. But he never stopped trying to integrate his professional and artistic paths. That quest, he says, “led me to the idea of using renewable energy as an artistic medium.”
A Marriage of Opposites
Lunar Cubit consists of eight 22-m-high pyramids that encircle one 50-m-high center pyramid. Covered in solar panels, the pyramids light up at night with the changing phases of the moon.
“I’m a huge fan of the marriage of opposites, so creating a lunar calendar using sunlight is a nice back and forth between opposing energies,” explains Flottemesch, who, upon learning about the LAGI competition, marveled “it was a perfect match for what I’d been thinking about for quite a while.”
Although Flottemesch’s initial intent was a project that was equal parts art installation and renewable energy technology, along the way he realized that the artistic aspects had to take precedence.
“One side of the piece faces north, which in solar engineering you’d never do, but as it turns out, it’s not that great an impact on output because Abu Dhabi is so close to the equator.” And the pyramids’ walls, which are made of amorphous-silicon–covered glass, generate just enough solar energy to meet the energy needs of 250 households.
While that may not be a lot, Ferry believes that the practicality of Lunar Cubit’s design and the fact that it would pay back its construction costs in only five years was what won it the top prize.
Coming in first place was certainly gratifying, but Flottemesch was nearly as pleased by the endorsement he received after his win from thin-film technology experts he met at the Energy Summit.
“Masdar has a large array of amorphous silicon modules,” he explains. “So getting to speak to people on the ground about performance data was a nice validation of my choice.”
Flottemesch admits the next big challenge will be developing those modules. He estimates total construction costs at roughly $23 million, but believes that the right thin-film-technology partner could bring that down significantly.
Having established contacts with thin-film experts with decades of experience, the artist-engineer is optimistic about meeting those challenges—and the role Lunar Cubit, once built, will play in changing people’s minds about renewable energy.
“A lot of people still don’t believe you can create electricity from sunlight, so seeing that happen in front of you allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. A big part of my interest in creating art is to open a door people can step through to expand their thinking.”
Marion Hart is an independent writer.
By inspiring the world about what renewable energy generation could look like, we hope to ease people’s concerns.
Robert Ferry, Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI)
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