Post-Modern Energy at SXSW Eco

Post-Modern Energy at SXSW Eco

Ask any English major. Post-modernism is one of the most complex, frustrating theories to learn. Traditional literary theory posits a linear narrative plot marked by exposition, development, climax and conclusion, but post-modernists embrace the unfathomable complexity of storytelling. Plots can be circular, parallel, intersecting or even absent. Climaxes can occur anytime and multiple times – or not at all. Temporal progression needn’t follow a straight line. Characters and settings are subversively dislocated from commonly understood norms.  There is no central organizing principle. As young literary critics learn more about post-modernism, however, their frustration yields to an expansion of their narrative understanding. It provides exhilaration alongside the complexity.

The same is happening in the energy industry, which became evident to me during several sessions at SXSW Eco. The energy industry – one of the most traditional, centralized, linear industries on the planet – is rapidly entering its own post-modern era, perhaps never to look back.

In this new world, power generation is no longer driven by primary characters (utilities) with a single climax (power plant) providing the source of all narrative action. Power generation is now being owned by multiple parties – utilities, companies, and even consumers themselves.

The conventional understanding of industrial progress – a linear narrative – is giving way to the circular economy – a circular narrative, obviously. Assets are consistently re- and up-cycled such that they never become waste. Commonly perceived enemies, such as environmental toxins, are being redefined subversively by people like renowned architect Bill McDonough, who said that toxins are simply materials in the wrong places. He believes they should be storied in soil – more on that below.

I experienced several moments during SXSW Eco which suggested the concept of post-modern energy, below are a few insights:

  • Airborne wind turbines, as discussed by ARPA-E chief Ellen Williams, can take wind power out of its traditional land and sea-based environs into the air, where multiple flying turbines can create power for folks down below in place of a centralized power plant model with one large (land-based) generator. This completely subverts the definition of power generator, not commonly understood as an airborne possibility.
  • Reorientation of how we understand the value of soil, also described by Williams. One of her funding programs is based entirely on designing plants with stronger roots which yield better soil (which can then absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). In just a few words, she confounded my understanding of soil and semiconductors as existing in two separate worlds. Williams described approaches to improving soil absorption of carbon dioxide which can be measured by millions of distributed sensors that detect the root quality of plants. Tech and dirt, strange bedfellows, can dramatically change the toxins in our air
  • A second reference to soil, this time in the context of a circular narrative between farmers and cities, was described by McDonough. In this narrative, he explains how rural farmers store the city-generated carbon dioxide pollution in rural soil – a circular flow between cities and nature in which carbon, previously understood as a liability, is converted into an asset that improves soil quality. In this sense, McDonough isn’t creating a new post-modern energy system, just as post-modern authors weren’t necessarily creating new stories. He provided an expanded lens through which we can understand the same unfolding events.

Joey Marquart is a senior vice president in the Energy sector.

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