An Anthropologist takes on Engineering

I have a pretty complicated relationship with my engineering module.

Though I did maths in 6th Form my undergraduate degree was in anthropology so when I was choosing my MSc modules I hadn’t done any serious maths for over 5 years. But a significant part of what drew me to this course was its interdisciplinary nature and it seemed like a waste to not take advantage of an opportunity to learn some engineering. As well as understanding some technical aspects of renewable energy, I hoped to gain an insight into engineering practices to enable interdisciplinary cooperation*, and the module hasn’t disappointed on either front.

One of the main aims of the module is to enable students to calculate energy and power outputs of different renewable energy sources. (Did you know that energy and power are different? I didn’t!) I, an anthropologist, can now do this! I recently completed a project that required analysis of the power output of solar PV, tidal stream and wind technologies, as well as analysis of various financial measures. In the end, calculating the energy output wasn’t even the hard part.

But as an anthropologist, this module has given me so much more along with that. My confidence with more complex maths has dramatically increased, as well as my ability to think through problems in an engineery way. They like to analyse problems numerically (“logically,” they would say). While I would say, “Look, all the UK solar PV companies are going bust, it’s probably not worth investing in them,” engineers prefer you to “prove it” by working out the maths. By gaining these skills I have also gained an understanding of how they think. I love talking to engineers at interdisciplinary events now, because I have much more common ground with them than other disciplines and can speak their language, to a certain extent.

Not only that, I feel like an engineer. I have been relentlessly mocked for proclaiming myself an engineer in the first week of term but the longer I spend working on engineering, the more true it becomes. It’s like I’ve unlocked a certain kind of freedom of thought that allows me to tackle certain problems differently. For example, a recent Independent article indicated that feeding cows oregano may reduce the methane emissions they produce. Having already idly wondered about harnessing cow farts for energy (revision does funny things to a brain), this article gave me the numbers I needed to start thinking about the problem like an engineer, thus:

A cow weighing 550kg produces between 800-1000 litres of emissions per day. Sure, that’s not all methane, but we’re just ballparking** here so let’s say they produce 800l of methane gas per day. According to Wolfram Alpha, the excellent computational search engine, 800l of methane contains 30MJ of energy, or 8.33kWh. Is that a lot? Would it be worth finding a method to extract the methane?

To answer this, I went on to find out the wattage of our kettle (3kW), timed how long it took to boil 0.5l of water (77 seconds) and worked out that 1 day’s worth of cow farts would boil roughly 130 cups of tea. Plus you’d have the milk all ready.***

The point is, I found joy in recreational problem-solving: finding out information, conducting experiments, performing calculations… All useful skills, regardless of how silly or serious the context is. This process even helped with my degree, as I found out how to convert from joules to kilowatthours while performing my calculations.

Photo 24-05-2016, 02 03 34 (1)

SI units poster in my living room.

That’s not to say there haven’t been countless frustrations along the way. I only did physics to GCSE, putting me at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to understanding the science behind what we’re discussing. My maths is very rusty and I couldn’t tell you how to differentiate, but my solid grounding in algebra has saved me numerous times. I’m not used to working with SI units and producing answers like 3.87 x 106 gives me the heebie-jeebies. But I have a bunch of patient physicist/mathematician/engineer friends, an SI units poster in my living room and a lot of determination to gain as much engineering knowledge as I can.

My engineering exam is coming up on Friday, so we’ll see how I feel about engineering after that. But for now my verdict is that it was definitely the most exhilarating, door-opening module I’ve ever done and I would encourage everyone to see how far outside their disciplinary comfort zone they can push themselves.

*In engineering lectures I tend to take notes on what’s happening, as well as the course content. It’s fascinating! Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist!
**”Ballparking” figures, or roughly estimating them, is one of an engineer’s favourite pastimes.
***This was a fun thought experiment, but collecting the gas would be a bit of a problem. Compressed methane is highly flammable, not something you’d want near livestock. I am adamant that keeping cows in a methane-extracting biodome could work, but the biggest biodome you can build is around 3 acres, only enough for 2 cow/calf pairs. Since methane rises, could we just put an awning over a field and extract from that? Answers in the comments, please…

Matching Policy and People

One of the benefits of studying at Durham University is the wide range of interesting talks organised, where leading researchers present and answer questions on their current research. The Durham Energy Institute’s events are highly relevant for the MSc Energy & Society course and I love to go along to broaden my knowledge of energy-related topics.

Last week’s lecture was given by Tanja Winther, a visiting fellow in the department of Anthropology from the University of Oslo. Her book, The Impact of Electricity, was one of the books that led me to study Energy & Society and I highly recommend it for anyone who is wondering what kinds of insights anthropology can give to the study of energy. Winther’s book is based on her doctoral research and discusses the effect of the introduction of electricity to rural Zanzibar in the 1990s. The talk she gave last week focused more on her current research in Norway on sustainable electricity consumption measures and why they often fail, encouraging us to link up people with policy by taking a practice approach to the study of energy with two case studies.

The first case study involved installation of heat pumps in Norwegian homes. 80% of Norway’s domestic energy usage is electricity, a very different setup to the UK which uses much more gas for heating. To reduce this electricity demand, the Norwegian government subsidised heat pump installations and now 27% of Norwegian homes have one installed. Winther’s study looked at how people interacted with their heat pumps and the effects on consumption, in a study of 28 households.

While people cited a reduction in consumption (and consequently a reduction in their energy bill) as a key reason for installing heat pumps, Winther’s study actually found evidence of a spatial and temporal rebound effect. While participants wanted to save energy, in practice they appreciated the increased comfort using more energy gave them. While before individual rooms would be heated, the heat pump enabled the whole house to be heated so that people did not have to experience the discomfort of going from warm rooms to cold ones. In addition, people tended to leave the heat pumps on even if they were going away for the weekend while they would not have done so with their previous heating systems. Both of these are partially due to the advice they received from the installers – heat pump owners are advised not to switch them on and off to preserve their lifespan and are also advised to leave inside doors open so that the air can circulate around the whole house. This expert advice was heeded because it allowed participants to be more comfortable, whilst still assuming that they were saving energy (despite this not being the case).

This interview data clearly shows that technology alone does not necessarily reduce consumption. In this case, the combination of technology, individual choice and instruction from experts led to no affect on energy consumption. Technofixes are often considered to be one of the key ways in which we can reduce our energy consumption, but without appropriate consideration of the people involved, this can clearly backfire. This is one reason why the social sciences are needed in the study of energy, something our degree course focuses on very strongly.

The second study that Winther presented was a case study of in-home energy consumption displays in the UK and Norway. The assumption of this energy-savings intervention is that if people understand their energy usage, they will be able to reduce their consumption. The energy monitors seemed to go through the following phases of use:

  1. Test Phase – where people experimented with their usage
  2. Consumption Monitoring – where intra-household conflict is reduced as the facts about consumption are known, control is gained as they know what the bill will be
  3. Discovery of Irregularities – where the usage of the device is normal and is mostly used to respond to external changes and making conscious purchasing decisions

Again, whilst it was assumed that people would want to save money with this scheme, people also cited learning as one of their top reasons for participating in this project, as well as saving money and supporting research. These kinds of insights into motivations for participation in energy savings schemes, as well as understanding how they are received and used, are key to designing effective policy initiatives. In order to really reduce energy consumption, we need to be able to match policy and people, through the work of social scientists.

The DEI lectures are often livestreamed so if you found this interesting, you can follow @dei_durham on Twitter for updates or check out the list of upcoming events.

Field Trip to Craghead

“Maybe it won’t be snowing in Craghead?” my colleague joked as the snow battered our tiny car as we drove through the twisting country lanes. The sky signalled its doubt about that as it grew greyer and thicker as we headed towards the tiny village. We probably could have picked a better day for our field trip, but at the same time, the snow in April definitely added something to the experience.

The field trip was one we had decided to take as part of our Field Project module. This module brings us together in teams to undertake a reaserch project, an extremely valuable experience for anyone looking to work in academia, or indeed the wider job market. Teamwork is always valued and having a project with a specific goal in mind is also great experience.

Craghead in the Snow

Our group’s project was to investigate the closure of the Green Deal, a government-run scheme that enabled people to make energy efficiency improvements to their homes by taking out loans from the government. Instead of being paid back like a traditional loan, however, the Green Deal loans were paid back through the customer’s electricity bill. Ideally, the customer would see a small decrease in their energy bills, as the efficiency measures should make up for the loan that they are paying back.

The Green Deal scheme was removed in late 2015 and we have investigated its impacts on Green Deal service providers and local governments; these impacts are numerous and interlocking and I won’t go into them here. In any academic project there is always literature to review and as part of this project we also conducted interviews. It was exciting getting out of the Durham academic bubble1 to interview people in industry and when one participant suggested a field trip to Craghead we could hardly resist.

Craghead is a small village to the north west of Durham, located close to the slighly larger town of Stanley. As with many villages in County Durham, Craghead is a pit village, or old mining town, and we went to see it because it is home to an innovative housing insulation initiative.

Most modern UK houses are built with a gap in the wall in which insulation can be inserted to improve the heat retention of the house. This is called cavity wall insulation. However, older houses are built with solid walls so cannot be easily insulated. What Durham County Council have done, with the help of the Green Deal and its partner initative Energy Company Obligations (where energy companies are required to give grants to households that need more expensive energy efficiency interventions, such as solid wall insulation), is pioneered external brick-look insulation on 154 houses2.

This is what we were looking for on our snowy field trip in April. The houses with external insulation had thicker brickwork around the doors and windows. Typical cavity wall houses have brickwork that is characterised by lots of long bricks in the pattern, while solid wall houses have more short bricks in the pattern3. Using this information we were able to battle the snow to identify which houses had been insulated, which were solid wall properties and which had cavity walls.

One of the things we noticed was how the properties on the high street had external insulation, but as soon as we went down a back alley we saw uninsulated solid wall properties. As we shivered in the snow we considered what it must be like in those houses and how expensive they must be to heat. County Durham has high levels of fuel poverty and the housing stock is one of the major reasons for this4. Our field trip enabled us to see what it was like for people with badly-insulated houses in this tiny village, as well as bringing us closer together as a team.

1. Durham is famously small and insular as a city, so much so that the university’s online magazine is called The Bubble.
2. More information on Durham County Council’s housing regeneration schemes can be found here:
3. The Energy Saving Trust has a good diagram of what a solid wall brick pattern might look like.
4. For a map of the fuel poverty in County Durham, see the Council’s Affordable Warmth Strategy document, p. 8. Craghead is in an area where between 13-17% of houses are in fuel poverty.