History, Science and Society

The most important milestone in the 20th century history of solar photovoltaics is usually recorded as the date in 1954 at which Bell Laboratories publicly announced that three of its scientists – Daryl Chapin, Gerald Pearson and Calvin Fuller – had invented a silicon photovoltaic cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run everyday electronic equipment. On April 25th, 1954, the company held a press conference to announce the invention of the ‘Bell Solar Battery’, a panel of cells that could power a small toy, and the following day they presented it to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. The New York Times heralded the invention on its front page, writing that the solar cell ‘may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realisation of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless power of the sun for the uses of civilisation’.

Yet this is a very particular account of the history of photovoltaic science and technology. It is a version of history in which agency is stabilised around three white men and one key material (silicon) rather than distributed across the complex network of humans and materials that were necessary for the solar cell to cohere as a successful technology. And it is a version of history in which agency is also spatially located, with the ‘West’ and the scientific laboratory at the centre and the ‘non-west’ on the edge or the periphery. One way of rethinking this history is to see non-western field sites and global locations as critical sites of research, experimentation and testing that have played a pivotal role in the design of the modern solar cell. Indeed the history of photovoltaics is deeply entwined with the history of ‘development’ as a 20th century programme for social and economic change. Continue reading

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Grid, ‘Un-grid’, Grids

In February 2012 the BBC World Service’s World Business Daily broadcast an interview with Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of a new UK-based solar energy company. The company, ‘Eight19’ (named after the time in minutes and seconds it takes for light from the sun to reach the earth) has developed a pay-as-you-go payment system for a low-cost solar home system that they are marketing to poor consumers in parts of unelectrified east Africa. Their customers pay for the energy they use in the same way that pre-pay users buy credits for their mobile phone, purchasing scratch-cards and entering numeric codes into a terminal. In the interview Bransfield-Garth describes the company’s vision of a future in which access to energy is provided like this, through what he calls ‘un-grid’.

‘We have this thing we call the un-grid which is this idea of 300 million households which each have their own electricity generation using solar power and you use a mobile phone network as a way of connecting them together, but in exactly the same way as people stopped putting out landlines for telephones when mobile telephones came along so we thing this virtual technology, as a way of delivering electricity is an entirely viable replacement for the conventional grid in rural areas.’

The ‘conventional grid’ that Bransfield-Garth mentions here is short hand not just for the physical built infrastructure through which mains electricity is distributed but for the State with a big-S. By contrast Eight19’s ‘un-grid’ is not just a virtual or invisible network, it is also shorthand for the market with a big-M. Continue reading

The Economy of Appearances

A critical part of the solar assemblage  is what anthropologist Anna Tsing called the economy of appearances. Solar entrepreneurs have to produce a spectacle of profitability and potential – of which the construction of a coherent, cohesive story or narrative for investors is vital. In this, journalists have an important role to play.

Last week The Guardian’s global development portal published an article by freelance journalist Anna da Costa about Mera Gao Power. Over the following year I plan to write about a number of for-profit companies that are rolling out solar-powered micro-electricity grids for communities in rural India and I will begin with this one, which received a $US300,000 grant from USAID at the end of 2011 to build and operate 40 micro grids in Sitapur district over the next two years.

These solar enterprises are of interest because – unlike portable solar lighting systems – they create a physical grid, based infrastructure that is premised on a wider social constituency of users that extends beyond the level of the individual or the household. I’ll explore the significance of the micro-grid more later but here I want to reflect on the corporate storytelling that solar entrepreneurs must engage in as they seek to secure investment from development donor agencies and venture capitalists. Continue reading

The solar assemblage

This blog is an attempt to connect some of the materials and relationships involved in the sale of solar technology to people living without access to mains electricity across the global south. The emergence of these ‘poor markets’ for solar photovoltaics and their applications (light, refrigeration, telecommunications) bring together political mobilisations around climate change and international development, bodies of scientific and economic expertise, the commercial interests of large and small-scale entrepreneurs, and an array of material technologies. Taken together, we might describe the emergence of something like a global solar assemblage that coheres around the idea that applications for solar energy present solutions to problems of energy and development.

I hope to use this blog to begin to think about and understand this assemblage. My plan is to use the space to engage with the diverse pieces of information related to renewable energy and low-carbon development that I encounter on a daily basis, and to formulate the kinds of problems and questions that they provoke for anthropology. My intention is for the ideas that are generated here to lay the groundwork for future publications, research collaborations and grant applications.

This is an experimental or sandbox space. I have taken inspiration from other anthropologists who are turning to the blog as an open, intellectual arena in which they can develop lines of inquiry and forge new connections with a wider community of interested people.

There are many people interested in following renewable energy technologies into and through contexts of ‘international development’. Some of them are currently involved in or are planning research projects around solar energy, some of them are currently writing up their work. Some of them I am in contact with and others I would like to hear from.