Lighting up tomorrow: Nesta showcases breakthrough energy innovation

One out of five people in the world has no access to energy.  That is about 1.3 billion people with no lighting for working, studying or socialising out of daylight hours, no power for irrigation, manufacture or computing and no heat for beating wintry evenings or making dinner. Two out of every five people have no access to modern energy and rely on open fires for cooking and heating – with all the health implications of smoke and environmental implications of forest destruction. Grid extension, even if desirable, could reach less than 40% of these people. And all of this is contextualised by the need to transform the exiting carbon intensive, climate damaging energy system.

A myriad of innovations has sprung up that are aiming to provide smart renewable off-grid energy to these groups.  They cover not only products but incorporate new technologies, finance, business models and behavioural strategies. They have an ambitious remit – they look to solve multiple problems beyond energy through partnering with women entrepreneurs, education providers and others.

Nesta showcased some of these innovations at the launch of its new challenge – to support the UNDP in sourcing off grid solutions capable of providing off-grid power to cover the needs of an average war-returnee family in rural Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Highlights spanned a range of types of solution, at different stages of development, diverse scale and impact potentials and operating from and within multiple countries. The three global organisations that had ‘wow’ factor were:

Grameen Shakti: This remarkable organisation provides a myriad of household power and cooking solutions –   using solar, biogas and efficient stoves. It managed to gain thousands of customers due to its innovative finance model which allowed users to make purchases on micro-credit systems, run by a specialised revolving fund. Grameen Shakti reached its first landmark of one million Solar Home Systems installed in Bangladesh in November 2012. On average, GS installs over a thousand solar home systems per day, working with a workforce of more than 12,000 people. Trained technicians, mostly women, manufacture components in 20 technology centres, and install and service systems. Some of these technicians have become independent energy entrepreneurs.

D.light: This is the brainchild of a Stanford graduate who was involved in an accident in Africa with an overturned kerosene lantern. The organisation now designs, manufactures and distributes solar light and power products in over 40 countries, through over 6,000 retail outlets.  They aim to transform the lives of at least 100 million people by 2020.  The particular genius of the d.lights lies in their affordability and ruggedness.  They allow people to replace kerosene lanterns for less than $10. The cost savings for customers can be significant, as families may spend 10 to 25 per cent of their monthly income on kerosene oil. For a typical farmer or shopkeeper, d.light products will pay for themselves in two months.

Azuri: The high up-front costs of solar have been the major factor prohibiting wider uptake of small solar systems in emerging markets. To overcome this, Azuri combined mobile phone and solar technology to provide solar-as-a-service by which the user pays for the usage of the solar product by purchasing weekly scratchcards. The Indigo scratchcard is validated using SMS from a mobile phone and a one-off passcode entered into the Indigo unit which provides lighting and mobile phone charging. It cuts weekly energy spend by 50% or more. Also clever is their escalation process which provides opportunity for customers to ‘grow’ their energy use through modular additions. Indigo was first developed by the Azuri team within the Cambridge University spin-out, Eight19 Ltd.

Within the UK, the following organisations stood out:

Firefly: This organisation which offers a solar and storage solution, started its life providing temporary power for Festivals in the UK. They provide a potential case study in leveraging business with a strong commercial niche to extend its platform to cover broader social needs. For example, their technologies could provide a useful solution for times when temporary power is required after natural disasters, during times of war, in refugee camps, etc.

Therefore: Another UK based innovation is a Gravitylight, designed by Therefore to replace kerosene lamps. This is worth noting for the simple beauty of its solution – using gravity to effect enough force for a small amount of electricity to be generated. To turn the lamp on, you lift a weighted bag up, and ‘voila!’, as the bag slowly descends, LED illumination. This was crowdfunded on Indiegogo and is currently undergoing trials.

Eiggbox: This interesting organisation is the initiative of a community on the island of Eigg, off the coast of Scotland. The organisation is an integrator i.e. it takes all the readily available technical solutions and creates a business model that allows it to take them to market.  It operates off multiple renewable technologies – wind, solar and hydro.

Both the UNDP challenge and these examples focus on emerging markets and areas in Europe that are rural or devastated by war.  It would be interesting to see reverse innovation within established energy markets that look to transform existing systems from carbon hungry to renewable. Perhaps these ideas could inspire UK-based inventors and remove the need for expanded fossil fuel or nuclear solutions in Britain?

This is part 1 in a 2 part series covering the event Exploring Breakthrough Energy Innovations supported by 6heads and hosted by Nesta on 8th March 2013.  For further details see



2 responses to “Lighting up tomorrow: Nesta showcases breakthrough energy innovation

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