Where are the appliances designed to be used with renewable energy sources?

By | December 31, 2011
LPG powered fridge for sale in Eastern Cape, South Africa

Almost 2 years ago in early 2010 I wrote about the opportunities for disruptive innovation in the emerging markets of the then developing world. One of the 5 case studies was that of the following concept:

Re-imagined household appliances
Refrigerators have come to the forefront of the news with the launch of Godrej’s Chotu Kool—a top loading unit co-created with their target audience in rural India, it does not require electricity and has one tenth the number of parts required in a conventional fridge. The refrigerator weighs only 7.8 kg, runs on a cooling chip and a fan similar to those used to cool computers. Chotukool consumes half the power consumed by regular refrigerators and uses high-end insulation to stay cool for hours without power while costing only Rs 3250 (USD 69). It is being distributed and marketed through partnerships with micro-finance institutions.

As this clay based precursor, the Rs 3000 (USD 55) Mitti Cool demonstrates, there have been a plethora of alternative solutions to the needs defined by basic household appliances. In the searing heat of the Indian summer, illnesses can be prevented by keeping milk and cooked food too cool to spoil. What Godrej has done however is taken the basic concept of low cost solutions and applied it to a mass market consumer good, to be marketed, branded and sold just like any other home appliance. Less moving parts imply ease of repair and maintenance, lower cost of ownership and possibilities for eco-innovations, a trend that could permeate the way appliances are currently designed and built for more profitable markets.

Where are these products now in the market and more importantly, where are other such home appliances?

Granted, the original concept was that of extreme affordability and these products were targetting the (still mythical) volumes in the BoP market – although in Godrej’s case it was simply common sense given the proportion of the Indian population who either lives off the grid or cannot afford the paraphernalia required for back up electric power when the inadequate systems cannot keep up with the demand.

Today however I was forcibly reminded of this product development direction when I came across the results of a significant study by Prof Arne Jacobsen of Humboldt State University that looked at rural Kenyan adoption of household solar power and the demand drivers that created this unsubsidized market. While there is much that is of interest in his dissertation, particularly the focus on the ‘connectivity’ aspects of rural demand, it was this observation that made me think about the untapped potential demand for a range of home appliances designed to suit the constraints of the majority of renewable home energy systems :

The average solar module size for a household system in Kenya is approximately 25 W, and the most common size is 14 W. Televisions, radios, and lights are the three main electrical appliances used with solar PV systems, while cellular telephone charging is a rapidly emerging use. Many appliances that are often used around the world in grid-connected homes, such as refrigerators, electric irons, and electric cookers, are generally not used with solar PV in Kenya. This is true because these appliances consume far more energy than the small solar modules that most Kenyan users can afford are able to produce. In other words, the quantity of electrical energy supplied by the solar PV systems used in Kenya is very small compared to the quantities that are generally available to grid-connected households, and this limits the range of possible uses.~ Jacobson, Arne (2007) “Connective Power: Solar Electrification and Social Change in Kenya,” World Development, v35, n1, pp. 148

While one can argue that this data is not only a decade old but focuses only on rural Kenya, I’d say that the basic insight would apply nonetheless wherever there is increasing uptake of modern energy sources among rural and/or lower income households. When one adds the potential number of households globally where utility companies are deploying prepaid electricity meters – The Philippines, many Sub Sahara African nations and of course the pioneer, South Africa – there seems to be implications for greater demand for products that would not only consume far less power than even the EU’s greening laws require but also track energy consumption in units of cash or energy simultaneously.

Current day EUP requirements are still designed with ubiquitous legacy infrastructure of the electric grid, not a wholly different system for sourcing, installation and purchase. In fact, I also wonder whether the fact that most of these household solar PV systems are slowly added over time in modular chunks (reflecting purchasing patterns of those on irregular or seasonal income streams) may not also play a part in influencing future product design?

There is a market opportunity here for manufacturers of consumer durables seeking to grow entirely new markets in the frontier regions of the global economy.

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