When engineering and anthropology think together

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What is microgeneration using renewable energies? Are you sure it’s something an anthropologist can collaborate in? It sounds like engineering, it sounds like … no, it definitely does not sound like something that has to do with anthropology.

Are you sure? Well, let me convince you. In the next lines I will try to get you interested in this topic, and maybe after reading it you will be interested in getting involved, as an anthropologist, in such a proposal. This initiative can be generated both from city halls and municipalities but also from private companies.

On the one hand, microgeneration using energy is, according to the EU definition, “different forms of grouped or cooperative small-scale production at community level existing to meet local needs; notes that microgeneration includes a variety of technologies (hydropower, geothermal, solar power, marine, wind, heat pump, biomass) having a specific focus on the renewable and sustainable dimensions”. In other words, it is a small-scale power generation that constitutes a rural electricity supply. The electricity generated could supply both private homes in a situation of energy poverty and public buildings such as hospitals, city halls or police stations. In addition, in the case where more energy was generated than consumed, it could be injected into the general network and earn money from it.

It is a process that includes the final user throughout the entire production and energy control as well as transforming the “customer” treatment of the classic model of energy supply, while avoiding costs and losses in the transport and final distribution. It is a very interesting plan within the EU and trends are increasingly routing to new industrial and renewable energy policies such as smart grids. The EESC stresses the importance of citizen participation in the strategic design process in order to “improve the living and working conditions of citizens and businesses”. Civil society, companies and experts require coexistence and understanding. This is where anthropology comes in.

 

 

Anthropology is a discipline that studies the human being within the framework of society and the environment to which it belongs. And its based on an ethnographic methodology to collect the data set on a particular social group. Based on the participant observation (living with the group, observing what the group says and does, as well as their cultural actions) the anthropologists carry out several interviews to understand more deeply the meanings that individual people registered in collective give to the actions of their day to day, with a consequent interpretation of the collected data. This analysis is qualitative and it lights us with its direct and primary treatment of the elements (Einstein said that “theory is sooner or later killed by experience”). However, it is always important and useful to combine it with different quantitative techniques to support results with data and statistics.

Now, what would be the role of the anthropologist in such a project? The expert engineer interested in the initiative of such a project is going to make a direct intervention in the town and will need, therefore, information about this one and its inhabitants. Thus, it is important for an expert in the social field to observe how this change would affect the context in wich it will be carried out. One could start with historiographical research work (how they relate in that town, what industrial/economic history has existed) to provide a context to the rituals and daily behaviors observed. Interviews can also give information about potential new forms of energy: the people can have the knowledge of where that creek or abandoned mill is that can be used to generate energy.

On the other hand, as it is a project that tries to include the inhabitants of the studied place so that in a near future they are self-sufficient, communication and formation are very important. Here, the anthropologist would take care of this mediation between the expert engineers and the people interested in knowing more about microgeneration to generate participatory spaces. A meeting could be organized between the different agents involved where they can exchange information and knowledge: always obeying the needs of the population without making a strong impact on their environment and, on the other hand, explaining and showing the community the different techniques that will be carried out, what consequences and improvements will bring, etc.

 

One example could be: the Canary Islands, in Spain, is a region that has many options for the installation of renewable sources: there is wind (wind generation), there is sun (photovoltaic generation) and there is geothermal energy (being a volcanic zone, the heat of the earth is very superficial). With the latter, following the idea of what has been explained, a small rural project could be proposed in order to use this energy for the generation of electricity directly through a geothermal power station. This, thanks to the meeting and exchange of knowledge between local residents and technical engineers, would have been built listening to the demands and needs of the neighbors who, at the same time, they could be trained in basic aspects for the management of the plant. This would make them participate not only in the final consumption but also in the whole process of (micro) generation of energy.

Finally, what could be very useful and interesting would be to write a socio-cultural report where all the information about what is going to be done in the community will be collected. This would be delivered to the public authorities along with the environmental report of the engineers so that it could be assessed from the different entities if interested / can be carried out.

In this way, it is evident how anthropology can improve a field as different as engineering and how together they can achieve results that are much better adapted to the needs of society. If we are able to build bridges between different knowledge, we can change aspects of our environment to better.

 

 

Motion for a resolution on microgeneration (EU): http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=MOTION&reference=B7-2013-0388&language=EN

 

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