Dreaming Up Solutions for a Post-Grid World

We know that there is a looming power crisis.
We know that there is an environmental crisis.
We know that there is a world of remarkable new innovations and technologies that can solve both.
And yet, we know the uptake of these are not as remarkable as the universe of new energy solution providers would have us believe.

What are the reasons for this and what can we do to change this? This was the topic of meditation of the Post-Grid Power challenge track at the Design Public conclave in Mumbai.

The group comprised of an entrepreneur, three scientists (one from a university, one with a government think tank and one with a multinational corporation), a social VC manager and a marketing manager of a bright rising star start-up whose challenge we were using to focus on a problem.

The lack of uptake can be blamed on:
. the lack of know-how (a lot of people are simply not aware of the alternative solutions)
. a lack of trust (they haven’t seen them work and don’t know from first or second hand experience that it does)
. a lack of access (even if i know, i don’t know where to buy the solution from)
. a problem of distribution (where do we get spares and service) while using the solution
(The absent demand thereof results in distributors and retailers not wanting to stock it. A chicken and egg problem here.)

The solutions discussed to this range from celebrity endorsements of solar-power to policy changes at the government level. But the outlook is optimistic given the sheer number of new businesses in the new energy space that are creating a new eco-system. This also stems from an understanding of the future of power from traditional sources (the prospects of these running out or turnig too expensive) at the strategic level in large corporations and governments and a consequent planning for a future where the largest share of power would come from (presently alternative) sources like solar, wind, bio-gas, etc.

The marketing problem aside, the design challenge of the post-grid products is a far more interesting one. Products that are being designed today are usually products that have traditionally been used off the grid, but owing to the absence of the grid or due to the appeal of reduced costs, are being re-designed to work off other sources like Solar, Wind, Bio-gas, etc. These products suffer from an inherent lack of imagination: or more precisely, they share the imagination of the grid-user’s ambitions, only the source being different.

Products for the post-grid market need to be dreamt-up afresh. Not by making energy-efficient, stripped-down versions of the grid solutions, but imagined without the reigns of earlier constraints of grid-power like solar powered fans in umbrellas made by high-school girls in Yemen. Solutions have to come from the ground. And businesses with their ear closest to the ground are the ones most likely to make the most radical breakthroughs.

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3 Responses to Dreaming Up Solutions for a Post-Grid World

  1. Aditya Dev Sood says:

    interesting, anand. a big bunch of problems alright! two questions:

    . where will the solutions emerge from? did your discussions shed any light on this question?

    . how does the consumer side (appliances and consumption) of the equation align with the production and distribution side? that is, if my appliances are addicted to 220 volts all the time, of course i’m not going to be happy with an alternative energy solution that provide a lower voltage and wattage to run my house. how can we make progress on both sides of the equation?

    also, i like the image quite well! source?

  2. Anand Vijayan says:

    As a solution, this one is going to be phased in.
    Renewable (presently ‘alternative’) sources will come in to take up what they can, and over time, as technology improves and as newer solutions emerge, will increase their share to eventually become the main source of power. Many of these solutions are also going to be off-grid. Domestic users will often will go back to the grid as suppliers, rather than as consumers.
    So, high-end users will wait a while before hooking their high-tech gadgets to the grid.
    While a part of the answer to your question is just patience (for technology to catch up), the fastest progress will be achieved with an enlightened government offering the necessary policy support to catalyze the necessary eco-system.

  3. Ayesha Vemuri says:

    interesting thoughts, anand, but i feel a large point is missing – that of community-generated power from existing waste. there have been a lot of breakthroughs in biogas, for example, or energy generated from agricultural waste (like Husk Power Systems) or even human bio-waste (with new toilet designs like eco-san or the one that just won bmgf’s toilet design competition). there are already solutions in existence that can bring power to places that currently have none, utilizing the raw materials in the area itself, which can be run by individual households or the village community.

    that said, i think the point aditya makes about home appliances is an interesting one, especially since increasingly more people in the country are now able to be consumers of these products. are there any examples of companies that are working towards developing appliances that work with much less power? would love to know of some examples of this.

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