It started with a run … from a conversation at Tiree Tech Wave to an award-winning project

Spring has definitely come to Tiree and in the sunshine I took my second run of the year. On Soroby beach I met someone else out running and we chatted as we ran. It reminded me of another run two years ago …

It was spring of 2013 and a busy Tiree Tech Wave with the launch of Frasan on the Saturday evening. A group had come from the Catalyst project in Lancaster, including Maria Ferrario and she had mentioned running when she arrived, so I said I’d do a run with her. Only later did I discover that her level of running was somewhat daunting, competing in marathons with times that made me wonder if I’d survive the outing.

Happily, Maria modified her pace to reflect my abilities, and we took a short run from the Rural Centre to Chocolates and Charms (good to have a destination), indirectly via Soroby Beach, where I ran today.

Running across the sand we talked about smart grids, and the need to synchronise energy use with renewable supply, and from the conversation the seeds of an idea grew.


I started my walk round Wales almost immediately after (with the small matter of my daughter’s wedding in between), but Maria went back to Lancaster and talked to Adrian Friday, who put together a project proposal (with the occasional, very slow email interchange when I could get Internet connections). Towards the end of the summer we heard we had been short-listed and I joined Adrian via Skype for an interview in July.

… and we were successful 🙂

The OnSupply project was born.

OnSupply was a sub-project of the Lancaster Catalyst project. The wider Catalyst project’s aims were to understand better the processes by which advanced technology could be used by communities. OnSupply was the main activity for nine-months of the last year of Catalyst.

OnSupply itself was focused on how people can better understand the availability of renewable energy. Our current model of energy production assumes electricity is always available ‘on demand’ and the power generation companies’ job is to provide it when wanted. However, renewable energy does not come when we want it, but when the wind blows, the tides run and the sun shines. That is in the future we need to shift to a model where energy is used when it is available, ‘on supply’ rather than ‘on demand’.

The Lancaster team, led by Adrian consisted of four full time researchers, Will, Steve, Peter, and of course, Maria, and the other project partners were Tiree Tech Wave, the Tiree Development Trust, Goldsmiths University, and Rory Gianni, an independent developer based in Scotland specialising in environmental issues.

The choice of Tiree was of course partly because of Tiree Tech Wave and my presence here, but also because of Tilly, the Tiree community wind turbine, and the slightly parlous state of the electricity cable between Tiree and the mainland. In many ways the island is just like being on the mainland, you flick the switch and electricity is there. While Tilly can provide nearly a megawatt at full capacity, this simply feeds into the grid, just like the wind farms you see over many hillsides.

However, there is also an extent to which we, as an island population, are more sensitised to issues of electricity and renewable energy.


First is the presence of Tilly, which can be seen from much of the island; while the power goes into the grid, when she turns this generates income, which funds various island projects and groups.

But, the same wind that drives Tilly (incidentally the most productive land-based turbine in the UK), shakes power lines, and at its wildest causes shorts and breakages. The fragile power reduces the lifetime of the sophisticated wireless routers, which provide broadband to half the island, and damages fridge compressors.

Furthermore, the aging sea-cable (now happily replaced) frequently broke so that island power was provided for months at a time from backup diesel generator. As well as filling the ferry with oil tankers, the generator cannot cope with the fluctuating power from Tilly, and so for months she is braked, meaning no electricity and so no money.

So, in some ways, a community perfect for investigating issues of awareness of energy production, sensitised enough that it will be easier to see impact, but similar enough to those on the mainland that lessons learnt can be transferred.

wirlygigThe project itself proceeded through a number of workshops and iterative stages, with prototypes designed to provoke discussions and engagement. My favourites were machines that delivered brightly coloured ping-pong balls as part of a game to explore energy uses, and wonderful self-assembly kits for the children, incorporating a wind and solar energy gauge.

The project culminated in a display at the Tiree Agricultural Show.

While OnSupply finished last summer, the reporting continues and a few weeks ago a paper about the project, to be presented at the CHI’2015 conference in South Korea in April, was given a best paper award at the CHI’2015 conference.

… and all this from a run on the beach.