Let there be light

Let there be light

A young Belgian company is combining technological innovation with financial innovation to create sustainable benefits from a natural resource that is available to everyone: daylight.

EcoNation, established in 2009 in Ghent, has developed the LightCatcher, a device that draws daylight into buildings in place of artificial light. The LightCatcher is a polycarbonate dome fitted with mirrors that watch the sky and find the point where the greatest amount of light is available. If a cloud blocks the sun, the LightCatcher uses a sensor to automatically readjust. The device also uses mirrors to amplify the amount of daylight brought into a building, so that, according to EcoNation, a roof opening of 1.6 square metres provides sufficient light for a floor area of 60 to 120 square metres. LightCatchers are powered by an integrated solar panel and do not have to be connected to the power grid.

The LightCatcher is primarily designed for large flat-roofed buildings, such as factories, distribution centres and agricultural sheds. It has also been installed in locations with large halls, such as Schipol Airport in Amsterdam and shopping centres. According to EcoNation, the device can provide “bright and pleasant daylight” in an interior space for an average of 10 hours per day – even in cloudy countries such as Belgium. If the amount of daylight falls below minimum levels, the LightCatcher automatically turns on artificial lighting.

The most obvious benefit of the LightCatcher is energy savings from the reduction of artificial lighting. However, EcoNation also claims to have an innovative business model for promoting the LightCatcher. It calculates a client’s bill for artificial lighting, provides the LightCatcher to the client for no up-front cost, and then bills the client for a share of the amount of money saved because the artificial lights have been switched off. EcoNation is able to keep precise track of the savings because each LightCatcher is monitored wirelessly from EcoNation’s headquarters. Because of the automatic interaction between the LightCatcher and artificial lighting, EcoNation knows exactly when the artificial lights are switched on and off.

EcoNation also claims that the LightCatcher is relatively resource efficient. It is 6.6 times smaller on average than standard domes that allow natural light into buildings, meaning “less material for more light,” the company says.

Though a young company, EcoNation has already fitted LightCatchers in 11 countries, and has opened branches in China and Morocco. Company founder Maarten Michielssens said he was inspired to create the device when he saw photographers at a football match on a dark day measuring the light to determine the best angle for photographs.

The company has also started to receive international recognition. Most recently, in April 2013, it received in New York a Bloomberg New Energy Finance “New Energy Pioneers” award. EcoNation was the only European company among the 10 selected winners.

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