What will the world of the future look like?
It’s a question that’s increasingly inescapable in the era of global warming, or, as scientists increasingly call it, the Anthropocene: a world shaped by humans, the machines we use, and the pollution those emit—a world of anthropogenic change.
The war in Ukraine is exposing in harsh terms the world’s continued heavy reliance on old-school fossil fuels, as gas prices skyrocket with the U.S. banning the imports of Russian oil. What would it actually look like if alternative energy sources were truly embraced on a global scale?
This is the question at the heart of German aerial photographer and artist Tom Hegen’s latest body of work, The Solar Power Series, which explores what the earth’s surface could look more and more like if we solely use the sun’s power to satisfy our hunger for energy.
It’s staggering to think about how much energy is effectively wasted from lack of proper utilization of solar power. The amount of power from the sun that strikes the earth in a single hour is more than the entire world consumes in a year, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The landscapes that Hegen captures could become the norm, if we humans as a collective group make it a priority to alter our current interaction with the world.
This edited Q&A has been condensed for space and clarity.
What story do you hope to tell the world in your Solar Power Series?
Hegen: A lot of my work is based on the topic of the Anthropocene. It’s the proposed current era in which humans have become the most significant factor influencing the earth’s geological, ecological, and atmospheric processes. Climate change is only one of the real-world problems caused by human activities. I want to visualize our interaction with nature. I document places we all connect to since we all benefit from the resources extracted, gained, or processed at those particular places. My latest body of work is around energy transformation from burning fossil energies to more sustainable solutions.
Where do you take us in your latest project?
Among the locations featured in The Solar Power Series are Ivanpah (California), Crescent Dune (Nevada), Les Mées (France), Planta Solar (near Seville, Spain), and Gemasolar (also near Seville). Most of these solar power production sites are kind of pilot projects and first of their kind constructed within the past 15 years. Those round, center-oriented constructions are solar thermal power plants. Thousands of mirrors called heliostats concentrate the sun’s energy to a tower that heats molten salt. The salt can reach very high temperatures and hold the heat even after the sun has gone down. The heat is used to boil water and drive a steam turbine that generates electricity in large quantities.
And this could be a very fruitful solution. Water, wind, and sun provide a tremendous amount of energy. The question is, how do we transform the energy into power that we can make use of, bringing it to places where we need it and having it available whenever we need it.
How does aerial photography change the way you view the world from this bird’s-eye view?
Aerial photography, to me, is like data visualization for scientists. The elevated perspective has such a remarkable ability to show the scale and context of a landscape. I also enjoy the abstraction and aestheticization that comes with changing the perspective. There is no time for me to experience the landscape and see all its details [when up in the air]. When I come back from production and look at the images on a large monitor, I have a second encounter with the landscape and can explore all the details in the scenery.
[Aerial photography] shows dimensions and reveals insights we wouldn’t be able to see from the ground. None of the places I photograph have been intentionally designed to be viewed from the air and make visual sense. This demonstrates that we are all artists, creating on the canvas of the earth’s surface. In this context, I see myself as a curator looking at places that we have drastically altered.
Where do you see solar power going in the upcoming decade? Will we fall short in sustaining our world, or will any action help?
To keep the planet a place worth living [on], we need to protect its resources and the state of nature. For the transformation from extracting and burning fossil fuels and polluting our air to more sustainable options, solar energy has the power to play a significant role. However, I assume it can’t be the only option. We need to find multiple ways of providing more clean energy, and yes, every step toward it helps.