The Coffee Pot That Only Works When It's Windy

Living green means more than just using renewable energy—it means shifting schedules to take advantage of when power is available.

It's going to take more than just reducing, reusing, and recycling to stop wasting energy and precious fuel. It's going to take synchronizing what humans want with what the planet needs. And that might begin with morning coffee.

At least, that's how four researchers at the U.K.-based Lancaster University see it. To demonstrate their idea of the future, the team developed a prototype kit called the "Windy Brew," which only allows a kettle to boil when a nearby wind turbine produces enough electricity. No renewable energy means no coffee or tea.

Windy Brew is just one of many prototypes developed for the university's On Supply research initiative, part of its Catalyst Project that explores green technology and social innovation. Spearheading Windy Brew and its concept are research associates Will Simm, Maria Angela Ferrario, Peter Newman, and Stephen Forshaw, from the university's School of Computing and Communications.

They got the idea after spending nine months on the Isle of Tiree, a tiny island 10 miles long and five miles wide off the west coast of Scotland that uses its lone wind turbine as a main source of energy for its population of less than 700 people.

"The idea of Windy Brew was to start thinking of what kinds of devices we could control," Simm tells me, "and what kind of tasks we have to do during the day."

Technologically, the Windy Brew isn't complicated. A pocket-sized computer called the "Raspberry Pi" collects a live feed of data from the wind turbine's energy output, analyzes the data, and then, if the turbine is producing enough energy, activates the radio-controlled plug socket that switches on the kettle.

The project, Simm is quick to point out, isn't meant to "force" people into changing their behavior, or punish them by withholding coffee until renewable energy is produced. (After all, anyone can remove the device and make the kettle boil.) Rather, it's about examining how energy affects people's daily lives, and figuring out how to live according to energy cycles.

"I believe in freedom," Ferrario says, laughing. "It's more like shifting perception and making people more informed and perhaps reflective on their decisions on the best way to do energy-intensive tasks." Understanding how much energy we take for granted is the idea behind all of On Supply's projects, as outlined in the video below:

On the island of Tiree, the inhabitants have built a community around their sources of energy, and are particularly in touch with when energy is produced. Should the wind turbine produce less-than-enough energy, residents adjust their schedules and tasks. They wait to use washing machines until they know the wind turbine will produce enough energy.

These kinds of time shifted activities, based on energy availability, are what Simm and Ferrario hope the rest of the world adopts. It would begin with social interactions—deciding when to meet up with others, for example. Ferrario proposes a coffee shop that has deals on days when energy is more available. The positive reinforcement—more renewable energy leads to cheaper coffee—would encourage people to pursue an energy-saving lifestyle.

From there, work schedules could change according to seasonal patterns. If winter means earlier sunsets in certain parts of the U.S., for instance, companies could consider starting or ending the workday earlier to account for the energy required to keep the lights on.

"You stick to the same schedule, which makes sense from the industrial age viewpoint, but it doesn't really make sense in the way we should be harnessing the best energy," Ferrario says. "Why work the same hour when the amount of natural light you benefit from is less?"

At home, small tweaks can be changed to appliance design, just like with Windy Brew. A freezer, Simm points out, could turn on for specific hours of the day, instead of running around the clock.

The team, to further explain their point, emailed me what they called a "tongue-in-cheek" abstract, imagining a paper they would publish in 2029, when they're looking back at the way people live today:

Breaking Away From 'Industrial-Age' Life Cycles: Renewable-Energy Forecast Pioneers Remember Tiree

Ferrario, M.A.; Forshaw, S.; Friday, A.; Newman, P.; Simm, W.; Dix, A.

Looking back a mere 15 years ago, it comes as a surprise that—during the so-called information age of smart technologies—our lives were so obtusely misinformed and disconnected from the natural energy cycles.... Our energy-blind lifestyles were only possible via the mirage of an 'always on' energy supply from fossil fuels.

This paper recounts the journey of how we re-learned to live accordingly to seasonal, weekly, and daily natural energy flows: No more venturing on treacherous icy roads just because of a 'scheduled' meeting, nor waking up on dark winter mornings for early school runs. Our society has at least re-learned how to make the most of natural rhythms and renewable energy resources thanks to a truly smarter use of technologies and the appreciation for a kinder pace of life.

As with all energy-saving initiatives, changing people's lifestyles to match energy patterns is much easier said than done. Adopting social change could be harder than adopting new technologies, but, as Ferrario says, it all comes down to people using technology to think about energy and going from there. "Our behavior is very difficult to break," she says. "But technology is the language we've become so used to speaking. So, it's one of the languages we can use to start reflecting on our own practices."

Whether that reflecting begins with a green brew in the morning, though, is up to them.