Fuller Challenge

BFI 2016 Science In Action Team Proposal

1  What is your solution or strategy?

We are a unique group of senior scientists, innovators, engineers, artists and educators who have come together to generate an intensely targeted, short-term burst of community service and forward motion – something that can be a lever for a societal change that can help heal our planetary climate.

 We’ve selected the action of immediately converting our university campuses to clean power.  

This is our extended team list – but please note that it only includes those who are free to lend their names to a proposal. Our actual scope is much broader, and includes quite a few people at MIT. Click to enlarge.

Team List March 14

2  Context

The conclusions of science inform our urgency.

The information is in; we must change our relationship with power of all types immediately, and acknowledge our planetary responsibility. We share our habitat with all other life forms on Earth, and do not have the right (nor is it sensible for our own survival) to ruin a beautiful planet. There are no others at the ready to welcome us. There was once an opportunity for gradual change, but that window has closed.

A disruption is now needed to overcome the societal inertia that is preventing us from acting in time.

Donated free power could have changed the course of humanity many times over. Imagine if the US had reacted to 9/11 with a national day of service; each person asked to do something to make the world a kinder or more peaceful place.

For considerably less than the cost of even one year of war, we could have converted the Palestinian territory, Pakistan, South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan to clean solar power, free for all citizens.

How could an action like this have truly changed hearts and minds?
How does it compare to a society built on forced reliance on fossil fuels?

How could an action like this have truly changed hearts and minds in those areas?

How does it compare to a society built on forced reliance on fossil fuels, and how do those people feel about America today?

3  What?

Within the next five years, we plan to design, encourage (and when possible install) innovative new clean power plants at every major university campus in America. We would benefit strongly in this effort from the collaboration of the Fuller Institute.

We’re starting at MIT with a perfect storm of opportunity: we have a chance to build a green power plant, renovate a windy riverside skyscraper, an energy-generating pavilion and a new green building (MIT plans a new, state-of-the-art space for EAPS.)

Our collaborators in industry are at the edge of innovation; Tesla has Powerwalls, and Lockheed Martin has incredible new wind and solar technology. Charles Chase of Lockheed Skunk Works (a former BFI finalist himself) is helping us out by mentoring our tech team.

Our site at MIT for the first of these revolutionary plants is a small rectangle of space just off of the Charles River, directly in front of the Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Science Department (EAPS). It will be a playground of physics and a showcase for simple, clean energy generation. It can sport hidden, beautiful features, illusions, exhibits and power-generating sculptures, and our favorite fantasy in that realm is a multi-story Fuller Sphere atop the roof. The Sphere could light up at night, easily seen in the Cambridge skyline, and would be instantly iconic. Unforgettable.


the view from Dogans window at MITAbove, the view from the MIT Green Building, the I.M. Pei skyscraper that is ready for a full renovation. The Fuller Sphere atop our new Power Plant would hover in the foreground, rising above the Walker Memorial to the left, and the Humanities complex on the right. 

Each of our green plants will be engaging. Some will be modular, for quick delivery, and some (as at MIT) will be custom.

We can use the MIT campus as a demonstration site for what is possible to accomplish in a short amount of time and with existing technology. Investigating new solutions is important, but it’s time-critical to act right now on what we already know, using what we already have. It is very late in the planetary climate game.

4  Where?

We are beginning in Cambridge, in the spirit of beginning locally to act globally. And it’s important to us to begin in the USA, as our country is one of the most significant fossil fuel consumers and one of the top carbon emitters. We’re starting with academic campuses because each is like a miniature city, geographically compact and with a well-defined power delivery system.

As we move forward, we should target those institutions with the softest action plans for improvement and the highest potential for change.

5  How? 

Our phased approach is infinitely scalable; a single hut in the desert can be done for a few thousand dollars, a large University building for a few hundred thousand, an entire campus for ten million or less. This is not rocket science, as they say, it’s common sense.

Elon Musk explains it beautifully in his video introduction to the first Powerwall rollout in 2015:

As we plan to donate the Green Power Plant and the technology to convert the MIT rooftops, and we will donate the new site plan for MIT EAPS, we expect the campus leadership to welcome our plans – as long as they are good (they are) and our team is sound (it is).

The key to moving past institutional inertia at all levels is surely a committee-vaporizing machine, and one that provides both resources and reassurance. There is a cognitive dissonance in play right now, as people seem stuck believing four things at once:

•     change is badly needed and things are very bad
•     they can do nothing personally to influence system change
•     help is not on the way
•     someone else is going to solve (and pay for) this

We can’t solve this dissonance; we must move around it instead of through it. Perhaps only a positive, creative disruption can do the trick. This is why it’s so important that our new Power Plants be irresistibly fun and beautiful, and that they be gifts.

This is real

6  History & Vision

Despite the link between our climate and our health and potential, progress is slow in America. We haven’t had the social will to ban mountaintop removal, deep sea drilling, or plastic water bottles. Our country is wealthy; with only a fraction of our military budget, we could bring free power to the world. The planet is full of sunsoaked rooftops and deserts, crashing seas and windy plains.

Some areas are hostile to green power because their communities are dependent on fossil fuel extraction. Some universities and most politicians receive funding from fossil fuel interests. These factors can make it politically and practically difficult to bring change. However, the technological solutions are proven and most of them are affordable.

Right now it costs about $3500 to take a house to clean power, and only a few hundred thousand for a large university building. Donated technology drops the cost dramatically. By taking this building by building, department by department (instead of battle by battle) we can access the specific people-driven funding sources (alumni groups, related business interests) that can make this happen.

7   How Is Your Strategy Unique? 

We are not aware of other groups attempting to take entire campuses or cities completely off of fossil fuels by gifting them with the technology to do so.

This effort is a community service push; we did not expect to do this, but we are moved to contribute to an urgent call to save our habitat. We are rebels in the important ways; even those of us with affiliations remain essentially free, doing original work. This project dovetails with work we are already doing. What is new is that we have banded together. Cooperation can magnify our intentions; our advice, connections and collaboration have more weight as one than alone.

This is not a business venture. Our sole goal is to show that green power conversion can be done quickly, painlessly, affordably and outside of committee. Our success at this initial experiment will inform our ability to scale outward and upward.

One of the interesting things about this proposal was how quickly it came together. When we saw the words “spontaneous cooperation” we didn’t have to ask what it meant. We are living it.

8   Impact

As green power conversion is mostly a matter of deploying existing rooftops for wind and solar, and installing power storage banks, if we can demonstrate this ease and affordability on a whole-campus site, then we can show that our approach is portable, scalable, and architecturally sensitive.

We can bring donated tech equipment to campuses that don’t have funds allocated for power conversion, or whose boards decline to divest from fossil fuels, and we can work with sites that need special architectural designs.

Our power installation will provide community resources as well as clean energy; our buildings will celebrate the physical sciences with energy generating sculptures, exhibits, and experiences.

If we are allowed to do our work, we expect to be able to take MIT completely off of fossil fuels in the space of one year, and, if we are successful (and especially if we have the Fuller Institute behind us) we will attract enough notice and support be able to expand exponentially, with the goal of beginning installations on at least one campus in each state within a five year period.

Truthfully, every new coal plant built, every new deep (oil) well drilled in the ocean, pipeline leak and fracking earthquake are failures of both imagination and responsibility.

9   Budget

Tech innovators are holding much of the free capital in America right now, and they are people who believe in science and technology. They agree on the urgency of our need to act, and will support us with equipment, advice, and financial assistance. We’ll work with Tesla for Powerwalls and solar, and Lockheed Martin and Sandia Labs for wind and other technology.

With the goodwill of tech leaders, the support of scientists and alumni, the reputation of our team, and the small cost of each installation, funding is not an issue – a few hundred thousand per building is easy to raise.

Our group is all-volunteer, but the cash award that comes with the Fuller Challenge would be incredibly helpful; it’s enough to run our team for a year and provide travel expenses for our artists and engineers. Most importantly, however, the support of the Fuller Institute can move us forward like a wave.

10   Who?

See our Team List, which details the depth of expertise we have in the areas of architecture, engineering, renewable energy technology, art, science, and education. Most of us have run our own teams, missions, and companies, and we are leaders who believe in science, and in taking responsibility for our actions.

As we can see what needs to be done, we want to use our good fortune and professional resources to help do it. We are as surprised as anyone else to find that it is we who are asking to do this, but honestly, if we don’t, we aren’t sure who will. We are all in this together, and we have a perfect storm of opportunity RIGHT NOW to make small changes that could have huge impact.

If the goal is, as Fuller said, “to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” then the answers are surely clean power, clean air and clean water for all, and for free.

Our project will, with enough momentum, use this campus demonstration as a springboard for sweeping change.