One night in February 201 - the same night that 87,000 people were left without power after a hurricane brought down electricity cables across England and Wales - I joined the directors of Knoydart Renewables for one of their monthly meetings.
That night Knoydart Renewables was in the midst of a critical decision about the long - term sustainability of the hydroelectric system. They wanted to engage both residents and visitors in a discussion about the future. The problem was, as someone who had grown up in Knoydart told me, ‘Even though everyone’s life here is affected by the hydro it is very easy to forget all about it.’
Poring over printouts of data from the hydroelectricity system the directors asked, ‘how can we make this infrastructure more meaningful to people?’ And, ‘what can we do with this this data?’
These questions overlapped with my own research as a social anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh. Supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) I have been documenting and analysing the ways that new technologies change how people around the world live ‘off the grid’, from the highlands and islands of Scotland to rural India and Papua New Guinea.
Over the following year I led a University of Edinburgh team of social scientists and computer programmers on repeated trips to Knoydart. One member of our team, Stephanie Terreni-‐‑Brown spent two months here, participating in community life and interviewing residents about their experiences of the energy infrastructure.
Collaborating with Knoydart Renewables we explored how digital data might be used to communicate the availability of hydroelectricity as a resource to residents and provide new information on which people might base decisions about electricity use.
With a small grant from Local Energy Scotland our programmers - Hadi Mehrpouya, Margus Lind and Chris Barker – built a website (www.powerofknoydart.org) that put Knoydart’s electricity use online.
Responding to suggestions from users we also developed a downloadable desktop app that showed rising and falling electricity demand as the water level in a virtual kettle. Following community wide consultations we also began to imagine how smart lighting systems might respond to data on energy demand.
Thinking through the problem of designing with data, we drew inspiration from others - from the University of Edinburgh’s Learning Energy Systems project and the Edinburgh Living Lab, to the London School of Economics’ Configuring Light project and open source lighting data project Lightlog, as well as the work of lighting researchers Susanne Seitinger and Zary Segall.
Hacking the Hue
In October 2014 we reprogrammed the Philips Hue, using two open source libraries to connect it to a live data feed on Knoydart’s net power demand and tested it in the village library. The colour of the light bulb was programmed to respond to the community’s electricity consumption.
When demand for energy was low, late at night or in the early hours of the morning, the Hue was green, like a Scots pine.
When demand for energy rose, at lunchtime, the Hue turned orange.
And at moments of peak demand, in the early evening, the Hue glowed red.
In December we re - installed the bulb in the window of the Knoydart information center. This was a more prominent, public location, in the heart of Inverie village, on the side of the peninsula’s only tarmac road.
Installed here, the Hue was intended to signal messages about energy supply to the community.
When energy demand is low, people were encouraged to use as much electricity as they like. But when energy demand increased, and the system approached its peak capacity, people were encouraged to use electricity more cautiously.
Introducing the Hue allowed us to explore an alternative medium for
communicating energy demand: one that was atmospheric and affecting in ways that our numbers and charts failed to be.
‘Until now’, one of the Knoydart’s long term residents told us, ‘there have only been two things that make us turn of our electrical appliances: thunder and wind. Your system is competing with the elements.’
The future of light
Digital technologies - from smart meters to mobile apps - are an increasingly popular way of monitoring and managing our energy consumption.
Our installation in Knoydart - preliminary and provisional - offers a unique starting point for people and organisations interested in linking the future of lighting design to our low carbon future.
Our installation demonstrates the potential for wireless lighting devices to be incorporated into future energy systems as smart meters or monitoring devices.
Connecting wireless devices to live electricity data presents an innovative alternative to manage energy demand, creating novel ways for people to be notified about their energy use, cost or supply.
Globally, there are many other off grid, renewable energy projects that provide unique contexts in which to imagine future theoretical, technical and design trajectories for wireless lighting.
Building on from our experiences in Knoydart, the next challenge is to explore how wireless lighting devices might be used in other global contexts, for example parts of rural India or Papua New Guinea, countries that that remain un-electrified.
As governments, international development donors and businesses commit themselves to realising targets for universal energy access, this research helps them understand the relationships involved in creating markets for renewable energy technologies in contexts of global poverty and the values, practices and meanings that mediate the consumption of energy, particularly lighting.