Harvesting kinetic energy

We are always looking for new innovations that will have an important impact in our energy transition. Kitty Knowles writes on the Forbes website about the efforts of Laurence Kemball-Cook to produce electricity as we pound our local pavement.

 

The Tesla Of Smart Cities? Pavegen’s On A £5m Mission To Supercharge Your Sidewalks

Laurence Kemball-Cook wants your footsteps to power your world.

The British entrepreneur came up with this idea back in 2009, after a failed university project with German energy giant E.ON.

The kicker? He couldn’t work out how to light street lamps with wind or solar energy.

“I left hanging my head in shame,” he tells Forbes. “I think E.ON was glad to see the back of me.”Kemball-Cook returned to Britain’s Loughborough University with a dark cloud hovering over him, but remained motivated to solve the challenge.

But the Industrial Design graduate made a breakthrough, leaving his final year with a working prototype for a floor tile that could harvest kinetic energy.

His company Pavegen has powered installations for the likes of Google, Coca-Cola, and adidas – it’s even currently working with the US government.

“We see our journey as similar to someone like Tesla: their first car was really expensive and the range wasn’t great, and our first tiles were super-expensive without much power output,” says Kemball-Cook.

“Now, moving into 2018, we’re seeing costs come down … my plan is to deploy, millions of square meters of our tiles across all are urban spaces.”

Getting Pavegen off the ground

It wasn’t easy getting Pavegen off the ground (so to speak), and Kemball-Cook spent four years modifying and improving his product from his bedroom to make it fit for purpose.

“The street is one of the most challenging engineering areas known to man,” he explains.

“The vandalism is tough, people are sick on you, rugby teams jump up and down on you, you have extreme temperature fluctuations, and you have to be completely water-sealed.”

Then there was the question of whether the world was ready for – or wanted – his kit. And even with working tiles, the founder had to plan a risky stunt to put Pavegen in the world’s eye.

In 2012, on one chilly night at 2 a.m., he broke into a building site. He cemented his tiles in place, and connected them to local lighting, before calling attention to “the future of lighting” on his website.

“I believe entrepreneurs should make their own luck, even if you’ve got to break some rules,” Kemball-Cook recalls.

In the weeks that followed, the founder was awarded a £10k prize and struck a £192k deal with one of the largest urban shopping centers in Europe, Westfield in London.

“Suddenly I went from this weirdo in a bedroom, to having a serious project with a major global player,” says Kemball-Cook.

The founder has since raised millions of pounds (£3.1m from investors, and £2m on CrowdCube), to build his team, and take his technology to a world stage.

Where’s Pavegen now?

Today the Pavegen team works from a small office in London’s Kings Cross.

Kemball-Cook also spends much of his time on his floating home – a solar-powered houseboat on the River Thames (it’s called “the ZEB1” because it’s a zero-emission boat, complete with Pavegen tiles on board).

In all, the company has installed 1,800 square meters of permanent and temporary interactive walkway, across 200 projects, in 30 countries (these have been as far-flung as Nigeria, Korea and Kazakhstan).

The company celebrated its first £1m revenue in 2015, and went on to generate £1.7m in 2017.

And Pavegen’s latest V3 tile, unveiled in 2016, is capable of generating 5 continuous watts of power as you walk over it (more than 200 times Kemball-Cook’s first prototype).

This may not be powerful enough to supply your home, but it’s certainly enough to power public services like LED lighting, sensors and data collection.

And it’s data that Kemball-Cook believe will be the future: his team can now detail far more accurately exactly how people are interacting with their walkways.

He’s even developed an app that allows users to see how much energy they’re generating, converting this into rewards and providing brands with high-value (permission-based) data.

“We’re aiming to be a billion-dollar company focused on making cities smarter,” says Kemball-Cook.

“Our sole mission is to make people happier in cities, through energy empowerment, our data, increasing health and wellbeing in those spaces.”

What lies ahead?

Kemball-Cook is currently in the middle of another (as yet undisclosed) investment round.

And in March, Pavegen is opening its first permanent installation in a leading Middle Eastern airport – this includes a gamified walkway which powers lights as you cross it and launches an animation.

This might seem like a publicity stunt – and it will certainly draw attention to Pavegen’s potential in a playful way.

But Pavegen also recently announced a new partnership with Siemens that Kemball-Cook says will take its technology across a number of serious smart city developments.

European projects are being considered for Paris, Munich, Berlin, Copenhagen, although Kemball-Cook has his heart set on smartening up the pedestrianization of London’s Oxford Street at the end of 2018.

The company is also weighing up how it could harvest energy from bike lanes, roads – even architecture.

“If you think about it we’ve got an incredibly sophisticated low-cost energy producing box, and that box can be placed anywhere to generate power,” Kemball-Cook explains.

“We’re really interested in roads and harvesting energy from vehicles [but] you can start harvesting energy from anything, be it buildings swaying in the wind, or cycle paths.”

For this to be possible, Pavegen will have to drastically reduce its prices.

The first tiles it sold cost £20,000 per square meter. But Kemball-Cook says it’s on track to get prices down to around £500 within the next few years (a price the founder describes as “in line with normal high-end flooring”).

“I’d like to make it the same price as any utility level flooring, I’m talking £100 a square meter,” he adds. “That’s where it gets really exciting.”

All this falls into Pavegen’s vision to sit at the heart of our future carbon-free smart cities, alongside green bike networks and self-driving cars.

“We’re seeing a number of initiatives that aim to take the city back for the people. The revolution is here,” he says.

Long live the revolution!

 

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