The Digital Hydroelectric

The mountain drains. Water hugs the peat, the grass, the heather, the rock, the loch, the dam wall, and the interior of the steel pipe as it is channeled eighty-seven meters downhill.

In a white brick powerhouse on the valley floor the impulse of water against a Pelton turbine wheel is converted into mechanical and then electrical energy. Six kilometers of cables, fourteen transformers and eighty-four wooden pylons carry electrons from the powerhouse through a wood, around a rocky shore and along a tarmac road, supplying eighty homes and small businesses with electricity. Attached to the inside wall of the powerhouse is an electronic monitoring system that collects digital data on power generation and power demand every second of the day.

The Knoydart peninsula, on the north west coast of Scotland, is one of the few inhabited places on the Scottish mainland that is only accessible by foot or boat. Knoydart is not connected to the mains electricity grid but around eighty homes and small businesses are supplied with power by a small community - run, hydroelectric system.

Unconnected to any mainland electricity grid this small-scale renewable energy infrastructure has become a model for transitions to a low carbon future. The dam, turbine, lines and pylons were first installed in the 1970s, on what was then a privately owned estate. During the 1990s concerns over the long-term maintenance of this hydroelectric infrastructure drove a successful bid to take the estate into community ownership.

Today many residents credit the material qualities of ‘the hydro’ with the production of social collectivity. Few of them would credit the intrinsic qualities of digital technologies with a similar capacity to produce community or collective action. Yet the hydroelectric system now includes digital components that are changing how people imagine, produce and manage their relationships to hydroelectricity.

The hydroelectric infrastructure is managed by Knoydart Renewables, an independent, community run electricity supplier. One of Knoydart Renewable’s ongoing challenges is to match the demand of their customers for electricity with supply and digital data has transformed their work.

Places like Knoydart offer us a reminder that ’the digital’ is becoming as much a part of our renewable energy infrastructures as water, wind and sunlight, electromagnetic fields and electrons, metal and plastic, wood and wire, light and heat, policy and legislation, technical models and economic theories, fantasies of autonomy and resilience, order and control.

 

Infrastructure off the grid

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?’

Over the following year Off the Grid project researchers led a team of social scientists and computer programmers on repeated trips to Knoydart. One team member, 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

In the global north, 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 - offered a unique starting point for people and organisations interested in linking the future of lighting design to our low carbon future. 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. Our installation demonstrates the potential for wireless lighting devices to be incorporated into future energy systems as smart meters or monitoring devices.

But our installation also opened up the ways that ‘smart’ or digital devices, information systems and logics are changing relationships to technical systems and reshaping the conditions of possibility with which people encounter electricity.

 

Sections of this work appeared on Philips Future of Light Blog.

An article, The Digital Hydroelectric, from Jamie Cross’s research on renewable energy, infrastructure and data in Scotland is forthcoming in 2016.

 

What relationships make it possible to
Live off the grid in scotland?

More on Scotland   ›