“The design industry should envision a world in which we consume less energy”

Architects and designers play a big part in the solar revolution, but they also need to find ways to reduce our energy consumption in general, writes Making Design Circular founder Katie Treggiden.


This year saw a plethora of solar-powered design projects, from headphones and watches to bicycles and even the “first production-ready solar car”. And today marks the launch of the inaugural Solar Biennale in the Netherlands – an initiative by self-proclaimed “solar designers” Marjan van Aubel and Pauline van Dongen that aims to engage creatives in the sustainable energy transition. So has solar energy finally reached a tipping point?

We’ve been hearing about solar power becoming mainstream for decades. In 2011, National Geographic published an article by renewable energy expert Daniel M Kammen, in which he claimed that solar energy was now the “fastest-growing source of electricity generation” while warning that geopolitical tensions between China and the US could destroy its potential. temper. .

In 2021, solar energy finally became the cheapest source of electricity worldwide

The following year, Green Age told us that “solar’s tipping point is approaching,” which defined that point as “the point at which solar energy produces power at the same price as grid electricity” — otherwise known as grid parity. Nearly ten years later, in 2021, solar energy finally became the cheapest source of electricity worldwide.

But now a perfect storm of factors – including last year’s long, cold winter, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and dwindling gas reserves in the UK – has skyrocketed energy prices, prompting everyone to look closely at green and locally produced energy. So, are we actually ready for a solar revolution? And if so, what role can designers and architects play in realizing the true potential of this clean and renewable resource?

One of the main themes, according to the founders of the Solar Biennale, is democratizing access to solar energy. “To enable a shift in our perception towards solar energy, it also needs to be more accessible to a larger group of people,” Van Aubel told Dezeen last year.

Her Sunne solar lamp (top image) is designed to hang in windows and mimic the changing light profile outside from dawn to dusk, powered by photovoltaic cells at the rear.

Elsewhere, Central Saint Martins graduate designer Mireille Steinhage has developed a solar-powered heated blanket, which she plans to sell for less than £10. This has added resonance to the looming cost of living in the UK, with many people expected to choose between “eating and heating” this winter.

Design also plays a role in increasing effectiveness. By mimicking the rose butterfly’s wing structure, which evolved over millions of years to absorb heat from the sun, scientists have been able to create thin-film solar cells that outperform traditional fixed solar panels at a much lower cost due to small holes on their surface that scatter the light.

Researchers in Australia have even developed a solar paint that can absorb water and use the sun’s energy to split the vapor and generate hydrogen — arguably the cleanest source of energy of all. By taking inspiration from nature and collaborating with scientists and engineers, designers can make something that is usually high-tech and expensive more beautiful, more effective and more accessible. But none of this addresses the elephant in the room, the fact that global electricity demand is growing faster than renewables.

According to a July 2021 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the supply of green energy is expected to “grow strongly around the world in the next two years”. the expected increase in global electricity demand in those two years,” the report concluded. The other half of the demand will have to be met with fossil fuels. So even as renewables grow, we still use more fossil fuels because we are in generally use more energy.

The world we have to imagine is more than a simple switch of energy sources

The case for moving to green energy is clear, as is the important role that architects, designers and makers will have to play in this transition – both in designing products and buildings powered by renewable energy sources and necessary cultural shifts.

But perhaps the design industry has an even bigger, more important role to play. Environmental consultant Mark Shayler says that “creativity is nothing more than imagining a world that isn’t there yet”. The world we have to imagine involves more than a simple switch of energy sources. The design industry should envision a world in which we consume less energy, period.

Urban planners can design tree-filled cities that are a joy to walk and cycle through to reduce our reliance on cars – electric, solar or otherwise. And they can go further, as evidenced by the Fab Cities model, which asks us to rethink the fundamental systems we rely on and imagine cities that produce everything they need using circular manufacturing models, where data only thing is that has to travel between cities.

Architects can create buildings that are passively heated and cooled without the need for radiators or air conditioning. Projects such as Dissharee Mathur’s passive cooling tiles, made from waste plumbing in Jaipur, will make a bigger difference than solar-powered air-conditioning units. Buildings with bicycle sheds instead of parking lots, community vegetable gardens instead of lawns and athletic tracks on the roof instead of gyms in the basement will all help to reduce our energy consumption.

We need a transition to green energy (and we need it fast), but we also need so much more than that

Experiential designers can help us fall in love with the idea of ​​traveling locally, slowly and with greater awareness, rather than simply flying to faraway destinations. Industrial designers can make simple changes to electronic devices so that they turn off when not in use and are easier to repair. And makers and artisans can show us the slow value of the handmade versus the mass-produced and next-day delivery.

We need a transition to green energy (and we need it soon), but we also need so much more than what the organizers of the Solar Biennale recognize. “What defines solar design is that it is much more than a way of delivering renewable energy,” they say. “Solar design shapes new relationships between people and their environment.”

It is here that architects, designers and makers have the greatest role to play – in imagining a world that has not yet arrived, a world where people recognize their interconnected relationships with their environment and build their lives, spaces and systems accordingly.

Katie Treggiden is an author, journalist, podcaster and keynote speaker who advocates a circular approach to design. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a membership community for designers who want to take pride in contributing to a thriving planet with every product they create. She is also a jury member at Dezeen Awards.

The top image shows Sunne, a solar-powered lamp designed by van Aubel to be hung in front of windows so that it can generate its own energy.


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Illustration is by Berke Yazicioglu

solar revolution

This article is part of Dezeen’s Solar Revolution series, which explores the diverse and exciting potential uses of solar energy and how humans can fully harness the incredible power of the sun.