Innovations in Distributed Power Change Lives Inside Megacities

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on August 22, 2017
Vicky Harris
Home  / Blog  /  Innovations in Distributed Power Change Lives Inside Megacities

“Where there is need, there is often innovation.” This is the assertion behind an insightful article from the BBC on distributed power generation entitled, “Tomorrow’s Cities: A Day in the Life of a Smart Slum.” Their premise is that some of the most innovative ways to bring power to cities are happening in urban areas that feel the pain of the lack of electricity every day. In this case, the article highlights the Brazilian “favelas,” or the poor neighborhoods that surround Rio de Janeiro, where millions of people live in makeshift homes.

After more than 100 years of electric power, not everyone in a city gets light.

Over the past decade, distributed power generation has emerged as one of the most practical and feasible solutions to provide electricity to the 17% of humanity (or 1.2 billion people) who lack it. Many of these people live in the poor neighborhoods that have sprouted around megacities in the developing world, which fall outside the design and reach of the grid that supports these cities. To power their lives, millions of people who live in these “unofficial” neighborhoods are getting creative with new distributed energy innovations.

Kinetic Energy Lights Up the Soccer Field after Sunset in Rio

Some of the most famous soccer players in the world grew up poor. Several of these players in South America grew up in neighborhoods where you really needed to get creative to play anything. One of the obstacles they faced was the lack of electric power at night in fields (if they had any electricity) or on the streets where most kids play. Therefore, soccer had to end after sunset. UK entrepreneur Laurence Kemball-Cook, who founded clean energy Pavegen, decided to change that. His company fabricates “smart flooring” that converts kinetic energy into electric power. A soccer field with a couple of dozen energetic kids seemed like the perfect test ground for an invention like this.

Kemball-Cook’s company installed their product, called Astroturf, in the Morro da Mineira favela in Rio de Janeiro. As the BBC reports, “Play can continue long into the night, thanks to lights powered by the players themselves. The six LED floodlights surrounding the field are powered by 200 kinetic tiles buried under the Astroturf, which capture the energy generated by the players’ footsteps. As players put weight on the tiles beneath the pitch, it causes electric-magnetic induction generators to kick in and generate electricity.”

Gravity and Solar Makeshift Homes in Nairobi

The same BBC article points to another innovation arising from the slums, this one from Africa. Millions of homes in Africa use kerosene lamps to get light at night—the same lamps people in the rest of the world stopped using more than 100 years ago. A social enterprise startup named GravityLight is now offering them an alternative.

The BBC reports that GravityLight has installed its product in Korogocho, the fourth largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. “This innovation does not need batteries or sunlight and costs nothing to run. It works by connecting an elevated bag filled with 12kg of rocks or sand to a pulley system. Each time the weight descends to the ground, it powers a generator to create 20 minutes of light. It takes three seconds to lift, for 30 minutes of light.”

Using this distributed system for lighting at night directly benefits the pockets and the health of families there. According to the BBC, “Buying kerosene costs between 10% and 20% of the income of the very poor, and a single lamp burning for four hours a day can emit 100kg of carbon dioxide per year.”

Distributed Power with a Future

These two startups, Pavegen and GravityLight, which are testing their technologies in the world’s poorest urban neighborhoods, are among the “seven green energy ideas” that Shell is championing with the help of cities around the world. Shell Kenya country chairman Brian Muriuki told the BBC, “Across Kenya, 77% of people are living without access to electricity. Bringing GravityLight technology to the country shows how collaboration and smart thinking are the keys to providing the most basic of human rights, while enabling people to prosper and progress.”

The reason why nearly 1.2 billion people on Earth lack electric power is because running traditional power lines is not always cost-effective. This may be due to the geographical remoteness of locations or because they are inaccessible from an urban planning perspective. Generating power using distributed energy innovations like the two highlighted earlier or Hydrogen 2.0, which can create clean hydrogen energy from water on-site and on-demand, can help solve the issue and close the electricity gap for hundreds of millions of people.

Power that Changes Lives

Mr. Kemball-Cook, the entrepreneur behind Pavegen, had a very clear vision of the bigger picture his technology enabled. As he told the BBC, “We changed the way a whole community looks at energy and science. We ended up inspiring a whole favela of children who saw that the power of sport could turn the lights on.”

The kids whose steps power the soccer field in the Brazilian favela not only get a field they can use at night, but they can also see the direct connection between science and their everyday lives. They will grow up knowing how technology can solve very human problems close to home. For this young generation, the connection between sustainability, technology, and their quality of lives could not be more obvious.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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