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.

As an idea the opposition of ‘grid’ and ‘un-grid’ encapsulates the ethics and politics of contemporary approaches to energy access in the global south. Like other kinds of solar lighting technologies that are being designed and developed for poor consumers, in their design and conception Eight19’s Indigo system naturalises the failure of the state to provide electricity as a public good or to build and manage a public infrastructure for electricity while naturalizing the success of the market as a harbinger of energy to the poor.

But the ‘grid’ has come to stand for more than the built or material infrastructure through which electricity is transmitted. In his classic book ‘Seeing like a State’ anthropologist James Scott argued that large-scale projects of planned improvement have always involved the creation of nation-wide grids of visibility and legibility, within which spaces and populations can be governed. In this sense twentieth century grids for the distribution of energy map directly onto other networks of power and the electricity grid becomes a metonym for the work of modern government.

Yet if grids and grid making are central to the work of modern states, so too are grids and grid making crucial for the social and technical construction of markets. For some scholars, like anthropologist James Ferguson, contemporary flows of global capital are characterised by their preference for particular spaces, creating zones and enclaves, that leaving huge areas and large populations ‘off-the grid’. Yet it is precisely the potential for profit-making in these off-the-grid worlds that characterises market-oriented approaches to energy access. At the turn of the 21st century the material politics of energy in places that are ‘off the grid’ involves the construction of grids for generating and distributing electricity and grids for making these places and the people in them legible and knowable.

For scholars of science and technology, like Thomas Hughes and David Nye, electricity grids have always been synonymous with the market. The extension of networks for the distribution of energy in north-America and Europe, their writings have shown, were motivated not simply by pastoral concerns for the wellbeing or improvement of populations but driven by complex negotiations between engineers, scientists, private companies and state-owned utilities. Electricity grids were a pivotal material technology in the making of markets, not just for energy but also for mass consumer goods. As electricity grids were extended so too did markets for soap and cosmetics, household goods and appliances. For a company like Eight19, the creation of an ‘un-grid’ for the distribution of energy offers precisely the same possibilities. As Bransfield-Garth explained in his interview:

“Instead of people having to pay 50 or 60 dollars to buy the product in the first place…they’re able to get the product for between 5 and 10 dollars…and then they buy a scratch card every week which costs about a dollar…You buy a scratchcard and it works for a week and then [the system] automatically shuts off and then you buy another scratchcard and so on…and that money is paying off the unit that they bought. They can either – at the end – own the unit that they bought or they can upgrade it to the next system. Typically, you would start with 2 lights and a mobile phone and then after 18 months maybe you’d go to 4 lights and a mobile phone and a radio and after another 18 months, 2 years, maybe go up to a television or so on. All of this is solar-powered, it is just going to a progressively bigger battery, solar-powered system, to be able to drive the devices.’

What then is the ‘un-grid but another grid, a grid imagined in opposition to existing networks of state power and knowledge but which actually involve the construction of new grids of knowledge and power, through which ‘poor people’ can be made visible and knowledgeable as consumers rather than citizens.

As discussion among members of the Durham Energy Institute’s Energy for Development Group suggested this week – attempts to increase access to energy for the worlds poorest reveal grids and grid making in their complex multiplicity. Conversations about energy access offer ways of interrogating and apprehending the multiple grids of power and knowledge within which people are connected, mapped, understood and made visible.

In parts of rural India, for example, we find attempts to expand mains electricity grids by regional state governments overlapping with the efforts of entrepreneurs to expand access to energy through the creation of new off-the-grid markets for portable solar-powered lamps, lanterns and solar home systems. The first overlaps with a new digital biometric grids being created by the India’s central government as it sets out to make all ‘Indians’ visible to the state, in ways ostensibly driven by a desire to guarantee rights and entitlements. Meanwhile, the second overlaps with the grids of knowledge being built up by rural market research organisations like the Delhi based MARTRural, whose researchers have spent the past twenty years compiling dynamic databanks on the colour, taste, and tactility preferences of rural Indians, knowledge which they are selling to social entrepreneurs and multinational corporations as they set out to launch new products in the rural Indian market place.

All grids are networks of power and knowledge. If visible electricity grids materialise the heavy hand of the pastoral state, the virtual, invisible un-grid materialises the hidden hand of the market. The un-grid is the lattice-work through which new markets for solar are being made.

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8 thoughts on “Grid, ‘Un-grid’, Grids

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