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Antti Silvast Electricity Supply Risks in a Socio-Semiotic Framework
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Antti Silvast Electricity Supply Risks in a Socio-Semiotic Framework



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  • 1. Semiotiikan X Oscarin päivän seminaari 27.11.2009 Electricity Supply Risks in a Socio-Semiotic Framework Antti Silvast Department of Sociology, University of Helsinki
  • 2. The structure of the presentation  About the PhD project  Previous research  Research design  Tentative results
  • 3. The PhD is part of the Managing Insecurity research project (2009-2011)  The main objective of the project is to examine the role of risk technologies in the management of insecurities, and in the production of welfare in the Nordic context, especially in Finland.  The empirical subprojects focus on four different fields where risk techniques are applied: life insurance and insurance medicine, the management of private economies through insurance, the production of solidarity with private and social insurance, and the management of electricity supply.
  • 4. Previous research: control room ethnographies  Interviews and observations that are focused on control rooms of various infrastructure companies, for example:  California’s electricity system operator CAISO (Schulman et al 2004; Schulman & Roe 2008; de Bruijne 2006).  The Dutch landline and mobile telecommunications company KPN Mobile (de Bruijne 2006) .  The passenger railway company Dutch Railways (Steenhuijsen 2009).  The Dutch rail infrastructure manager ProRail (ibid).
  • 5. Control room ethnographies  The studies claim that operator skills, experience and knowledge are central for the real-time balancing between careful anticipation of uncertainties and improvisation in the face of “turbulent inputs” (Schulman & Roe 2008, 64).  Operators (e.g. controllers, dispatchers, technical supervisors, department heads) as reliability professionals.  Furthermore, also particularly interest on the inter- organizational aspects of control rooms.  Links and feedback through telephones, pagers, computers, communication systems, real-time measurements etc. (Schulman et al 2004, 16; de Bruijne 2006, 89.)
  • 6. Control room ethnographies  The deregulation, oversight, liberalization and privatization of infrastructure services -> the fragmentation of infrastructure organizations and institutions.  Hence an increasingly central aspect of infrastructures’ reliability: the skills, experience and knowledge of the control room operators.
  • 7. Research design  Main question: how is reliable electricity provision accomplished during day-to-day work in Finnish electricity distribution companies?  No society-wide or culture-wide theoretical/sociological presuppositions of ”risk” or ”security”
  • 8. Research design  For data gathering, interviewing at the control rooms.  Conduct interviews at the control rooms where work is going on .  Start with very general questions, then move on to detailed questions and ’probes’ (comments, repetition of the replies, request for clarifications, summaries) (Gobo 2008, ch. 11.)
  • 9. Descriptions from a research site of one company  The control rooms of this electricity distribution company are responsible for: 1. Maintaining key voltages. 2. Maintaining electricity frequency. 3. Balancing energy load and generation. 4. Observing load limits (e.g. power line temperature). 5. Buying and selling both energy and fuel (e.g. gas, turf). 6. Planning energy load and generation for the subsequent day. 7. Answering customer phone calls (outside office hours). (cf. Schulman & Roe 2008, 27-30.)  Also subject to regulatory oversight
  • 10. Descriptions from a research site of one company  The energy market control room  Brokering energy on the Nordic common energy markets.  Brokering fuel for power plants (e.g. gas, turf).  Balancing energy consumption with generation. 2 operators at a time, 7 operators all together. 24/7 work in three shifts (morning, day, night)  The electricity distribution control room  Switching the electricity distribution grid  Responding to alarms  Coordinating with remote maintenance teams  Answering the customer fault phone line 1 operator at a time, 5 operators all together. 24/7 work in three shifts (morning, day, night)
  • 11. The interviewees are the operators of the rooms  Mm1 (market room, male)  Mm2 (market room, male)  Mm3 (market room, male)  Mm4 (market room, male)  Mm5 (market room, male)  Mm6 (market room, male)  Mf1 (market room, female)  Dm1 (distribution room, male)  Dm2 (distribution room, male)  Dm3 (distribution room, male)  Dm4 (distribution room, male)  Dm5 (distribution room, male)  Bm1 (both control rooms, male)
  • 12. What happens in exceptional situations?  Operator (Mm1): There is nothing else to it. District heating has so many additional heat plants. The only thing is that money gets burned.  Interviewer: So it is just costs then?  Operator (Mm1): Yes, there is not, THERE IS NO SECURITY RISK. Except if a boiler explodes, then for the boiler men. But there is nothing else. If some plant is dropped out of production, one scrapes together the energy and heat from elsewhere.
  • 13. On-the-spot improvisations  Interviewer: Is this work routine-like or does it change daily?  Operator (Mm2): Yes, I mean it changes in principle. Or it is kind of similar, but every moment this is such guess- work. There is no such moment where you could throw your feet to the table, moments when the shift would go through without any disturbances. There is never such a moment that is hundred percent sure, that you could say what is the temperature for instance and it depends on that so fully.
  • 14. Adapting to varying circumstances  Interviewer: Earlier you mentioned that all the work is mutually agreed and standardized, then how much is this regulated by such standards, different standards and laws?  Operator (Dm4): In principle electricity work is usually highly standardized. If everyone follows the standard, then it is highly kind of structured. There is the problem, however, that when you go to the work destination, the destination might be highly varying. And then comes your own adaptation of how you want to do it.
  • 15. The physical well-being of people  According to Operator (Bm1), the work is “about the physical well-being of people”.  But Operator (Dm3): “The customers have become more and more demanding.”  Operator (Dm1): “It is this cell-phone age that has done this.”  Operator (Dm1): “Of course it is always a problem that if those calls start to come and you are alone and you have to try to answer all of them. And if someone wants to report that I have trimmed the tree line here, during a twenty [kilovolts] fault. And he does not get through necessarily because there is so much [calls]. And for some [callers] the information about fault is also not enough.”
  • 16. Applying the actant model  A.J. Greimas (1980/1966) sought to build a general theory of meaning.  According to the so-called actant model, all narratives can be modeled as the struggles of six actants: subject, object, helper, opponent, sender, receiver.  The actant model aims to be both as simple and as general “structuring hypothesis” as possible
  • 17. Applying the actant model  A motivation for the actant model comes from the various qualities of actants: persons, computers, profit, city parts, the weather, “the people”, etc (cf. Science and Technology Studies) (see Silvast 2009).  With actant model (and socio-semiotics more generally), the relationship between “ideology” and “discourse” is not 'fixed' beforehands (c.f. Critical Discourse Analysis, see Törrönen 2005).
  • 18. Actant model I: achieving reliable supply  Sender/receiver: the physical well-being of customers  Subject: control room operator  Object: reliable electricity supply  Helpers: planning, real-time adjustments, local know-how  Opponent: surprising events
  • 19. Actant model II: the demanding customer  Sender: the turbulent technology and environment  Receiver: the customer  Subject: the customer  Object: managing events  Helpers: practical coping  Opponent: “more and more customer demands”, cell phones, customer’s sensitive computers
  • 20. Thank you!  For correspondence, please contact: Antti Silvast University of Helsinki, Department of Sociology Vuorikatu 6 (PO BOX 4), 00014 University of Helsinki antti.silvast(at)
  • 21. References • de Bruijne, Mark (2006). Networked Reliability: Institutional Fragmentation and the Reliability of Service Provision in Critical Infrastructures. Dissertation for TUD Technische Universiteit Delft. • Gobo, Giampietro (2008). Doing Ethnography. Sage. • Greimas, A.J. (1980). Strukturaalista semantiikkaa. Kääntänyt Eero Tarasti. Helsinki: Gaudeamus (ransk. alkuteos 1966). • Roe, Emery & Schulman, Paul (2008). High Reliability Management: Operating on the Edge. Stanford: Stanford Business Books. • Schulman, Paul; Roe, Emery; van Eeten, Michel & de Bruijne, Mark (2004). High Reliability and the Management of Critical Infrastructures. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (12) 1: 14-28
  • 22. References • Steenhuijsen, Bauke (2009).Competing Public values: Coping Strategies in Heavily Regulated Utility Industries. Dissertation for TUD Technische Universiteit Delft. • Silvast, Antti (2009). Riskiyhteiskunta ja merkityksenanto: sähkönjakelun häiriöiden semioottista tarkastelua. Teoksessa Hannula, Erja & Ulla Oksanen (2009). Murtuvat merkit: semiotiikan teoreettisen ja soveltavan tutkimuksen näkökulmia. Helsinki: Palmenia, 187-198. • Törrönen, Jukka (2005). Rajankäyntiä kriittisen diskurssianalyysin ja semioottisen sosiologian välillä. Teoksessa Räsänen, Pekka, Anu-Hanna Anttila & Harri Melin (toim.) Tutkimus menetelmien pyörteissä. Jyväskylä: PS-kustannus, 139-162.