Consumer-driven innovation

20th March 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD

How consumer problems drive the framing of the innovation question So far five InnoColumns have covered the cultural aspects of innovation, while the next five have touched on creativity and serendipity.

20th March 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD

How consumer problems drive the framing of the innovation question

So far five InnoColumns have covered the cultural aspects of innovation, while the next five have touched on creativity and serendipity. In the previous column (The biography of innovation, February 21), I noted that while innovation is, of course, about novelty, it is also about how many lives it could touch. Every innovation has a biography and is an evolutionary punctuation mark with a past and a future.

Attempts to use solar power have a long and meaningful history. Environmentalism and technological developments in using electricity from the sun make this subject the darling of venture capitalists. Breathtaking “aha” manifestations in general are invariably consumer-led innovations. In the case of solar energy, they are adaptations of solar and electrical technologies to distinctive applications. Thus, consumer benefit becomes the central driver of innovation.

Here are four very different manifestations of the generic innovation referred to as electricity from solar power. But first, a quick introduction to the jargon: solar converts to direct current (DC) electricity. Our grid supplies alternating current (AC) electricity. Solar DC must be converted to AC through a device called an inverter unless the user’s appliances are converted from AC to DC.

Laura Stachel, the creator of the solar suitcase started was shocked when she witnessed the poor obstetric care in a Nigerian hospital with unreliable electricity. She developed a portable, compact version of the hospital solar electric system that could scale to rural hospitals and clinics. Since 2009, Stachel has produced over 400 solar suitcases that have served rural hospitals in over 20 countries. Each system costs $1,500 and takes an hour to install. Last year, Stachel, from the Blum Centre for Developing Economies at University of California, Berkeley was named in the list of CNN Heroes of 2013. The solar suitcase is seen as an important innovation in the fight against maternal mortality in the world.

In the second example, the intrepid Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala of Indian Institute of Technology Madras observed that Indians suffer electricity blackouts. He framed the question: is it possible to avoid a blackout (complete unavailability) and restrict the consumer’s inconvenience to a brown-out (limited availability)? His question is simple, and the solution can be hugely impactful.

Blackouts occur when demand exceeds supply. So the innovators asked, instead of carrying out 100 per cent load-shedding, can, say, seven per cent of power be allowed to continue to flow on the grid, albeit at a much lower voltage to distinguish it from normal supply? This limited power is distributed to homes in DC form. Incidentally, DC appliances such as LED lights, DC fans and DC electronics are also more energy efficient, stretching far whatever limited power is available. The team figured that the grid could terminate at each home on a unit, which would now provide two power lines to the home. One will be the currently used AC supply, which could be used to whatever extent a customer wants, but would trip during load-shedding; the other will be a DC line with limited power, but available during normal supply as well as during load-shedding. Customers would use the DC line with DC appliances such as lights, fans and electronics.

While the utilities will provide limited DC power, a customer could also directly connect a solar panel and a small battery to this DC line and supplement the DC power. With a modest investment, a customer could now use some six tube-lights, four fans, a large LCD TV, laptops, multiple cell phones and tablets.

The innovation does three things at the same time. While it makes blackouts a thing of past, it encourages customers to use energy-efficient DC appliances. At the same time it creates a pull for installing decentralised solar-power at homes.

In the third example, an NRI materials scientist from Purdue, Veera Raghavan, framed the challenge to his Kripya team of innovators at Chennai. Consumers such as government offices, village schools and post offices work only during the day. Can the team deliver solar electricity even in remote places where there is no grid, as in hilly or tribal areas? Could the team design a solar-powered device that would deliver AC power to the home? During the day when the sunlight is present, schools, post offices, banks, small shops could continue operations even irrespective of grid power. The Kripya team designed a micro-inverter, which could be attached to the solar panel. This device could be operational even when the grid power is totally absent. The Kripya team is continuing to improve the device they have already designed.

In the last case, Tata Chemicals framed an industrial question: can the team save power costs by designing an on-grid system that uses the DC electricity from solar cells on the already installed AC devices? A solar module generates DC electric power when illuminated by sunlight. The inverter converts it into AC power, which can be used in various applications of energy consumption.

Suitable rooftops were selected from within the factory structures. The array of solar cell panels generates DC power, which is fed to an inverter, which converts it into AC power, which is synchronised with internal grid power. The inverter will always maintain the frequency of the solar power higher than the internal grid power, so that all generated power could flow to the system. The company expects that the unit will generate power for seven hours a day for all the days in a year. The overall efficiency is expected to be about 17 per cent. The team is currently installing a 150 Kw system at their fertiliser factory at Babrala, Uttar Pradesh with an appropriate commercial return.

The key point exemplified is that it is the consumer problem that drives the framing of the innovation question. In each case, the innovation seeks to bring together available knowledge into a distinctive solution. The four examples are distinct innovations, but they share a platform of technological similarity.