Three creative ideas to light up the world

Image courtesy of Xavier Vilalta

More than 1 billion people have no access to electricity, but creative minds are elaborating solutions

I didn’t expect electricity to feature much as a topic at TEDGlobal 2013. Yes, dynamic tweeters and texters at the event are constantly in need of electricity for their heavily thumbed mobile devices. More importantly, however, the conference itself addresses issues related to the lack of electricity and frequent blackouts in many parts of the world.

The first day of TEDGlobal 2013 showed that many people and organizations are working to fix the problem. Here are three ideas that caught my attention.

1. Soccket

One of my favorites is the Soccket, a foam football which contains a pendulum-like mechanism to generate and store kinetic energy. Half an hour of playing will generate enough power to keep an LED lamp going for three hours.

It’s been tested in off-grid areas of Mexico and in parts of the United States, and its creators are currently looking to raise money on Kickstarter, a funding platform, to commercialize the idea.


For her part Juliana Rotich, co-founder and director of a non-profit tech company based in Kenya, spoke about a product called the BRCK (pronounced ‘brick’), designed to overcome the double curse of frequent power cuts and poor internet connections. The BRCK is a wireless, battery-powered internet hub which switches between open WiFi, 3G and 4G and ethernet networks without breaking your existing connection, and provides eight hours of back-up power.

It’s not the first device of its kind but it’s particularly rugged, to cope with local conditions, because “if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere,” Rotich said.

3. Shopping mall

Another project designed to eliminate the plague of power cuts in Africa is an ingenious shopping mall designed for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa by Spanish architect, Xavier Vilalta. For a start it uses very little power because its façade – whose pattern was inspired by the fabrics worn by Ethiopian women – lets in light and the breeze needed to keep the building cool.

But it proved attractive to local shopkeepers for a different reason. The shop space sold so quickly, Vilalta says, because solar panels on the roof and a battery storage system mean business will no longer be interrupted by power cuts in the city.

Rooftop solar power is hardly revolutionary, although it’s clearly a welcome advance to shopkeepers in Addis Ababa. However, Vilalta says that just as mobile devices are becoming integrated in wearable ones, solar panels are becoming integrated into building designs. His solar panels, for example, cover umbrella-like structures that provide the shade for a rooftop café (see picture).

Some of these ideas may not work or have little impact on the 1.3 billion people estimated by the International Energy Agency to be without power. But with electricity so central to our modern lives, it is encouraging to witness the breadth of the efforts underway to help the energy poor.

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About the author

Malcolm Shearmur

I'm chief editor at ABB and joined the company in 2006 after more than a decade in financial journalism and radio. The tangle of challenges around making energy available, affordable and sustainable is one of my main interests.
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