Centre for Applied Research of the Faculty on Digital Media & Creative Industries

This researcher is already working and living on solar power

18 Apr 2023 13:01 | Faculty of Digital Media and Creative Industries

What is it like to work on solar energy, and to depend on a brilliant sky for your Teams meeting? Designer and researcher Angella Mackey of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences has been trying this out for a few years. Her phone is connected to a portable solar panel. She wants to discover what happens when you can actually perceive an energy source, such as the sun, and see if this changes our behaviour towards energy.

From earthquakes in Groningen to steaming coal power plants, the Netherlands has some catching up to do when it comes to green energy. We’ll therefore have to make the transition to solar and wind energy in a relatively short period. This implies that in the future, we can no longer count on the (almost 100 per cent) certainty of electric supply, because shortages will occur when there is little wind and sun.

As electricity will not always be equally available in the future, this requires a different attitude towards energy. What will that be like? Designer and researcher Angella Mackey is investigating this already by working mostly on solar energy for nearly two years. Her mobile phone, for instance, is also connected to a solar panel, and is sometimes just completely empty; she then just needs to do something else. Pretty unusual in this society.

Sun on your skin

The question Mackey tries to answer with her research: what does it mean if you can actually perceive an energy source? “Right now we just plug our devices into a wall. We know the electricity comes from the ground, but we’re not connected to it”, she explains. “This makes our relationship to energy very abstract. With solar energy we have the opportunity to perceive it: we can feel it on our skin, and see it out of the window. We can also see windmills and watermills, for example. But we’ve lost that with regards to our energy use.”

Self as an object of study

Mackey spent the past years researching what it does to you to live with the sun as your main source of energy; insights from this can be applied for designs around solar energy. Does it make us deal with energy in a different way, and influence our standard for ‘being available’? To explore all of this, Mackey uses herself as an object of study ('auto-ethnographic research'), charting everything she notices and runs into, also observing bodily reactions. “In order to fully understand, I have to do explorations myself.”

Angella Mackey

Sensitive to the season

During the experiment, she became more sensitive to the season. "What I’ve noticed is that our energy levels are connected to the sun. When there was a lot of sun, and thus a lot of solar energy, my own energy was also up. On darker days my energy also went down. I noticed that it’s unnatural that society has a constant way of working and performing. Why do we have to get up in the dark? Why do we want to immediately start working equally hard as on light days?”


At the beginning, it was tough for Mackay too at times. In the winter months, with little sunshine, she looked forward to every ray of light and had to make do with very little solar energy. At first this regularly led to frustration. "Why don't I have enough energy! But after a while, my frustration shifted to the device itself. Why do we always have to be available?"


The experiment also meant Mackey had to make choices in how to use the solar power. She has two sons and did want to be reachable for them. When they were with her, she allowed herself to turn her phone off completely and not be reachable. During the darker months she also had to go outside regularly, to find the lightest place to charge the panels over a longer period of time. the meantime, she’d eat lunch or go for a walk.

Less abundance, more balance

If it’s not your own research, Mackey says in fairness, it can be very difficult to push through. For many people a flat phone battery, or not being able to use Google Maps at a crucial moment, could lead to a meltdown.

Yet overall, Mackey experiences less abundance and more balance, as she moves with the seasons and with the supply of energy. "In the end, this is the shift we have to make. To not view energy as an infinite stream, but to be in balance with energy and the seasons.”

Angella Mackey's proposal to continue this research has just been honoured with a KIem GoCi research grant from Regieorgaan SIA. Mackey is going to collaborate on this with solar design Pauline van Dongen. Mackey was able to set up the beginning of the project 'Designing with the sun' since November 2021 with crossover funding from CoECI, the FDMCI knowledge centre, and City Net Zero. Her research was presented at the Solar Biennale, organized by Pauline van Dongen and Marjan van Aubel.

Angella Mackey is part of the AUAS research groups Civic Interaction Design and Fashion Research and Technology. She's also a lecturer at the Master Digital Design. Next to this she regularly gives workshops on exploring certain concepts by experimenting yourself; for example for students of the bachelor programs Product Design and CMD.

To become extra aware of the changes in sunlight, Mackey also designed a pair of 'solar ears'; devices that make a humming sound when the sun shines. This allowed her to listen to the sun's changes from June throughout the year. "It does add an extra dimension to be able to hear the sun," she says. “It’s more of a sense of energy you’re perceiving.”