Two inventions that have the power to transform energy use

Two very different companies have come up with innovative technologies that could transform how renewable energy and light are used.

Late in 2012, we became aware of two very different companies that have created new technologies to change the way light and power are distributed. Their ideas gave us a renewed sense of the power of innovation, which we need to ensure a sustainable future.

Big company ABB’s breakthrough circuit breaker

One of the biggest issues for renewable energy is that few users live in the mountaintops or offshore areas where much wind power is generated, and no one needs electricity in the deserts of North Africa. Instead, the energy that is generated is often converted to high voltage direct current (HVDC) and carried long distances on HVDC lines. They are cheaper to operate and more efficient conductors than AC transmission lines.

This type of technology has been limited because no one had invented a HVDC circuit breaker, a critical component in a stable and safe grid.

But last November, ABB announced that they had invented a HVDC breaker. “ABB has written a new chapter in the history of electrical engineering,” said Joe Hogan, chief executive of ABB. “This historical breakthrough will make it possible to build the grid of the future.

“Overlay DC grids will be able to interconnect countries and continents, balance loads and reinforce the existing AC transmission networks … HVDC technology is needed to facilitate the long distance transfer of power from hydropower plants, the integration of offshore wind power, the development of visionary solar projects, and the interconnection of different power networks.”

No doubt ABB has added a certain level of trumpeting to their announcement, but it is exciting to see progress in this area.

Tiny company‘s great prototype – a weight-powered LED

One of the great distinctions between the world’s poor and poorest is the absence of electrical lights in the homes of the latter group. Throughout Africa, Latin America, and Asia, people light kerosene lamps, candles or oil lamps to see at night, risking burns, respiratory health and increasing their risk of cancer. They also spend a significant proportion of their income on kerosene and add CO2 to atmosphere.

The increasing availability and decreasing price of LED lights has a great deal of potential to change this landscape. But in terms of electricity supply, most people who live far from the grid have little cash to pay for the solar cells and battery storage systems that power solar lighting. People have less money to pay for ongoing maintenance and support of larger systems, so solar lighting becomes a project for communities rather than households.

While new microfinance schemes might provide a solution, microfinance institutions do not generally provide consumer product financing and have little infrastructure to allow for the installation and upkeep of solar lighting systems. And cheaper lamps with self contained batteries are low powered and have a limited battery life. In short, solar may not always be the best solution for lighting the homes of people on low incomes.

A skunkworks project by London-based industrial design company,, has devised a completely different solution. GravityLight is a lamp powered by the descent of a 9kg (20lb) weight that is pulled up at 20-30 minute intervals by the user. Like the weights on a grandfather clock, the lamp’s weights store potential energy and release it to power the LEDs in their slow descent. There are no cells to gather energy from the sun, no batteries in which to store it; it’s a self contained unit.

The company hopes to be able to sell it for $5-10 (£3-6), a fraction of the cost of an equivalent solar powered lamp.

Innovations like these two are precisely why sustainable business is critical to our future. We need large scale, safe, reliable HVDC lines to transmit renewably generated power from deserts and sea beds to industrial and residential users. Thanks to ABB, we are now better able to gain renewable energy economies of scale impossible before their invention of the HVDC breaker.


Alison Kemper teaches management at York University in Toronto, Canada, and has worked with the Michael Lee-Chin Institute for Corporate Citizenship since 2005

Roger Martin is dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and is academic director of the school’s Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship. His research work is in integrative thinking, business design, corporate social responsibility and country competitiveness. His most recent book is Fixing the Game.m1

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