Invisible power hits the street

 By Jim McClelland

We might already have seen news of high-profile innovations in walkway and roadway installations that generate power, whether through kinetic energy from footfall or no-skid solar surfaces on which you can park and drive. Jim McClelland looks at three different, smaller-scale innovations hitting our streets, involving cool design and discrete, ‘invisible’ power generation via bacteria, bins and bus stops…

Our streets hide a secret. All around us, as we stroll along pavements, invisible power generation is starting to happen. Mysterious as that might sound, this energy enigma is fuelled by some very unsexy sources: bacteria, bins and bus stops.

One such solution, trialled in glow-in-the-dark trees, is set to help illuminate the City of Lightitself, Paris, where the application of bioluminescence by French start-up Glowee involves bacteria found in squid.

Present in over 90% of marine organisms, bioluminescence is a chemical reaction regulated by a gene that enables natural light production. Glowee inserts this genes coding into common bacteria which are both non-toxic and non-pathogenic. These bacteria are then encapsulated in an infrastructure-free transparent shell, along with nutrients needed to live and make light.

The key challenge for Glowee going forward will be to extend life expectancy. There is a unique market opportunity awaiting bioluminescence in shopfront installations, as 24-hour electric lighting is forbidden under French law.

Moving along the street in search of invisible energy takes us next from lighting to litter, and bacteria to bins.

Manufactured by the Egbert Taylor Group, the Bigbelly range of bins offers smart, street-tough collection and recycling stations that deliver real-time data, helping optimise waste management efficiency. As the name suggests, each bin also includes an automatic compaction facility that allows its 570 liters (151 gallons) capacity to be boosted up to five times the standard for street furniture. The really clean and clever aspect is that all these functions, including compaction and wireless communication, are run off an internal battery that is wholly solar-powered.

The Bigbelly Smart Waste & Recycling System can be found in all 50 United States and more than 47 countries worldwide. Recent local-government roll-outs include public-space installations in Leeds, England, and Canberra, Australia.


SEE MORE: Power from the people by Jim McClelland



Also harnessing power unseen is a new-generation bus stop that employs transparent solar technology to produce sufficient renewable energy to run an average London home. Installed in the UK Capital for client Canary Wharf Group (CWG) by the leading UK landscape materials brand Marshalls, the smart design marries strong structural performance with attractive modern aesthetics.

The groundbreaking Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) glass has been developed by UK-based Polysolar and is capable of generating more than 2000 kWh a year, even in low and ambient light. Opportunity for the London pilot arose out of the company’s success in the CWG’s Smart Cities accelerator, the Cognicity Challenge.

Whilst energy generation has essentially always been part of the day job for Polysolar, it represents a relatively new but critical development for Marshalls, as their Group Marketing Director responsible for sustainability, Chris Harrop explains:

“We believe it’s important to think ahead. Future Spaces Project is our ambitious attempt to foresee how the commercial, public and domestic spaces we help design, build and share might adapt and evolve.”

As the megatrends of mass urbanization lead to higher population density, Harrop sees crowded and costly real-estate assets getting ‘sweated,’ with shared space in particular having to become multifunctional. As a result, energy generation is now part of his business, too, he concludes:

“As the world becomes increasingly urban, city designers will look to concrete to solve a plethora of complex problems. From a product R&D perspective we’re already exploring how we can build-in opportunities for clean and green energy generation at the same time as providing solutions for the built environment.”

With designs so discrete as to appear largely invisible, this new wave of innovation hitting our streets is small-scale and stealth-like, but smart. The energy secret is out, we just can’t see it.

about the author
Jim McClelland
Editor + journalist for supplements to The Times + Sunday Times, also quoted in Guardian, Sunday Telegraph. I blog for such as GE + Gap. Active on social media. Specialisms include Sustainability.