Parasites Harvest The City’s Spoiled Energy

Talking energy parasitism, we’re not talking about people that grow cannabis in their basement using energy from the neighbors — it’s about all the energy that is spoiled in urban areas. Energy from buildings, from public facilities, from traffic and more. All the rest bits of heat, light, wind and movement could be re-used for other purposes when harvested well. This article shows some examples of guerrilla energy harvesting in the city and shines a light on the pioneers of energy parasitism.

Designer Eugénie de la Rivière recently launched a prototype of a very small robot that traces spoiled energy in public space. The robots, presented at the graduation show of the Design Academy in Eindhoven, are plugged into places where energy is wasted, such as warm air leaving a restaurant’s window, wind blowing around the corner of a huge building, or light shining through a window. This wasted energy is harvested by the robot and used to power the robot itself. This way the micro-robot doesn’t need any additional energy and is completely self sufficient. The robot also keeps track of the wasted of energy and monitors it. Together with all the other micro robots a map can be made that visualizes waste of energy in the city. The Dutch website Bright points to understandable concerns about the role of these micro-bots and privacy matters. This project, however, is about energy and it shows that it’s possible to re-use wasted energy in urban areas with small self-functioning robots.

Harvesting energy from the city to use for other projects is an interesting idea. In 1997, far before we started this blog, designer and artist Michael Rakowitz made a series of beautiful sleeping bags and igloos that parasite on the wasted hot air from buildings. His brilliant project ParaSITES does not only harvest the wasted energy, it also transforms it into something that is immediately useful: a warm and well isolated sleeping place for homeless people or tourists. According to Rakowitz, parasitism is a relationship in which a parasite temporarily or permanently exploits the energy of a host. In his vision a parasitic relationship within architecture can be beneficial to both the host and the parasite.

Energy parasitism is a relatively unexplored form of urban activism or street interventionism, although there’s loads of energy to use. A group called Energy Parasites experiments with harvesting energy in the city. Their guerrilla projects vary from small ‘illegal’ windmills attached to a tram, to small machines using the escalators in a metro station to get energy from, and a hydro installation for an urban fountain.

“Energy parasites are handcrafted objects designed to opportunistically harvest small bits of energy across public landscapes”, they explain. “Agnostic to energy origin or ownership, these artifacts redirect their captured energy through a variety of means including expressing it and storing it for later reacquisition and usage.” All these efforts won’t solve the world’s energy problem on the short term, but they’re interesting and characteristic explorations.