BfG News Issue 17 - Expert View: Innovation Challenge

17 Dec 2008|Added Value

Martin WrightIt’s a blisteringly hot afternoon, and the sunlight’s bouncing off the sparkling blue water as Faroukh Mia picks up his mobile. He urgently needs to check out the latest prices for his main product line. But Faroukh isn’t, as you might imagine, a businessman sat by a pool in Dubai: he’s floating in his tiny fishing boat in the Bay of Bengal – and he needs to decide where to land his catch to get the best price of the day. He is one of the growing number of entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, that are exploiting new technology. Faroukh lives miles from the nearest mains power. His mobile, like the lights in his home and in his wife’s sewing workshop, are charged by solar electricity, courtesy of a small photovoltaic (PV) panel attached to the roof of his house. It was sold to him by Grameen Shakti (‘village energy’) – an offshoot of the hugely successful Grameen Bank.

Thanks to a simple micro-credit system, even poor families like Faroukh’s are part of the company’s rapidly expanding customer base. The savings on fuel payments for smoky, unreliable kerosene lanterns easily cover the monthly repayments. The clean, bright solar lamps mean they can work into the evenings – more than doubling their income as a result – while the phone plugs them into the wider economy in a way which would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Grameen Shakti – winner of an outstanding achievement prize in the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy – has now installed close on 200,000 solar home systems across Bangladesh, and confidently expects to hit one million by 2015. With over 30 million families marooned ‘off grid’ in Bangladesh alone, the potential for future growth is enormous.

In the UK, renewable energy supplier Ecotricity’s ‘Merchant Wind Power’ service provides onsite turbines to businesses such as industrial and retail parks. Started in a Cotswold caravan by rock star look-alike Dale Vince, Ecotricity is tapping into a growing desire among companies for energy independence. Onsite power not only gives them a sense of control – it also offers a potential revenue stream via the sale of electricity back into the grid. And there’s a lot less local opposition to a turbine sat in the middle of a car park than one perched on a scenic ridge…

Sparks are taking to the road, too. While the world’s auto giants were falling over themselves in the search for the holy grail of hydrogen power, it was left to the minnows to pursue what’s fast emerging as a more promising future for green motoring: the electric car. Chetan Maini’s Bangalore-based REVA company is behind the quirky G-Wiz, which has quickly found a niche for itself in London’s congestion zone. At around £7,000, the price is low, the running cost lower. The money you spend on recharging would translate as a fuel economy rate of 600mpg.

For those unable to stomach the slightest whiff of compromise behind the wheel, there’s always California’s Tesla Roadster – the brainchild of PayPal millionaire Elon Musk. The company’s had its ups and downs, but fresh financing means it should soon be rolling out its fabulously sleek (and extremely expensive) Lotus Elise-lookalike, promising an acceleration of 0-60mph in 3.9 seconds – and dispelling once and for all the notion that green is inevitably worthy.

But if you’re worried about having any kind of wasting asset on wheels outside your home, you could always eschew car ownership of any kind. Which doesn’t mean not having a car when you really want one. Streetcar is one of a number of ‘car clubs’ which are finally taking off in Britain’s major cities. Their cars are parked strategically in 700 locations across London. They’re bookable via text message, and accessible with a smartcard issued to every member. A lot less hassle than car hire, says Streetcar – and at around £3.95 an hour, significantly cheaper, too.

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