I haven’t posted a new building of the week for a little while, so here’s a new entry to my occasional series. Earlier this month, Dutch mast company Kaal Masten unveiled the world’s first off-grid solar-powered lighting column. There have been solar garden lights and such things before, but a street light is a little more complicated and it’s taken a few advances in solar power to get to this point.
The ‘spirit’ lighting column has solar panels down the sides, batteries inside, and LED lights at the top. It’s a little boxy, but we’ll have to put up with that until we can bend solar panels, which won’t be long.
It’s a small thing really, but there are a couple of reasons why I thought it was worth mentioning. The first is that by an entirely off-grid street light is a very useful thing. Since it doesn’t draw any mains power, it doesn’t raise energy consumption. You don’t need to wire them in, so there are savings on cabling and infrastructure. It will take a couple of generations of the technology to bring the price within reach, but it seems like a potential leapfrogging technology for African cities.
The second reason to post it is that it reflects a broader trend towards energy independent machines. As renewable energy advances, it is possible to take more and more things off the grid – street signs, phone masts, parking meters and so on.
Street furniture is one area where that is happening, but you can buy off-grid consumer products too. One of my favourite gadgets is my WakaWaka solar lantern. Nokero offer light bulbs that you hang out in the sun during the day and plug in at night. The long-running ‘one laptop per child’ project have experimented with a solar-powered prototype laptop. You can’t get one in Britain, but companies such as Vodaphone and Samsung have launched phone handsets with integrated solar charging in the past. Vodaphone’s was aimed at rural India and cost just $32. A Finnish company recently announced an e-reader that charges itself on ambient light.
A lot of these are one-offs or niche products at the moment, but if trends in solar power continue, integrated solar charging might be standard for smaller gadgets in the not too distant future. It’s an important aspect of sustainable design, and something I look forward to watching develop.