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