Gaming for climate action

April 21, 2023 in NY times

At a training facility for Consolidated Edison workers in Queens, there is a yard with electric poles where line workers can master climbing skills, a replica of the city’s underground electric structures for practice fixing wires, and a library where employees can play the climate change board game Energetic.

A race against time — or, rather, global warming wrought by fossil fuels — the game invites four players to work together to decarbonize New York City by 2035.

The challenge is rooted in reality, said Stephen Wemple, general manager of the Utility of the Future team at Con Ed, the city’s largest utility company. Gov. Kathy Hochul has mandated that 70 percent of New York State’s energy must be renewable by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040. Currently, renewable energy percentages are in the “high 20s,” he said.

Energetic is the brainchild of Richard Reiss, a fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Cities at Hunter College and the founder of City Atlas, an online resource about New York City’s transition to green energy. He invented the game along with a group of interns.

The idea came to him after trying one too many times to explain New York City’s specific energy challenges to colleagues and students. “We couldn’t really find an easy model of how, exactly, New York City would decarbonize,” he said. “We wanted to show where everything would go and how it gets there.”

The challenge lends itself to a game, he said: “You are trying to build certain stuff, and you have a certain amount of time to do it, and you have obstacles.”

Image:  Richard Reiss invented Energetic with a group of interns.Credit…Meredith Heuer for The New York Times
Richard Reiss sitting on a beige sofa with his laptop. Maps and a painting hang on the wood-paneled wall behind him.

In the game, each player takes on a role — politician, engineer, entrepreneur or activist — and together all the players must come up with a plan. “You have the engineer worried about the grid stability, the entrepreneur figuring out how to spend the money to invest in the infrastructure, the politician who is concerned about public opinion, and the activist who is worried about the time scale or how quickly we can do this,” Mr. Wemple said.

Complications are also thrown in the mix. Players draw cards that introduce, say, a public protest halting a project or a research failure with an idea that seemed promising.

“It helps you visualize the energy transition and see what are the steps needed,” Mr. Wemple said. “You can’t just build wind turbines offshore, because you need transmission to bring it to shore.”

In 2018, Mr. Reiss sent a few prototypes of his game to energy experts to get their opinions. After Jesse Jenkins, then a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, posted a photograph of Energetic on Twitter, people started asking for copies, Mr. Reiss said.

John O’Leary, New York State’s deputy secretary for energy and environment, bought a few copies. “We sold another to someone in the British government,” Mr. Reiss said. “The editor of Nature Energy, a peer-reviewed journal, also has one.” There are only a few hundred games in circulation.

Tim Grejtak, who works on low-carbon fuels and energy storage for Con Edison, wants to organize a board game night for his team. “There is a point in the game where you have to add different technologies to make sure the whole grid stays in balance and reliability, and that is exactly what we do,” he said.

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