By Karel Steyn, president – Southern African Association for Energy Efficiency

The question “Can innovation solve our energy shortage challenges?” can be dealt with once we are clear as to what innovation means. The Wikipedia definition reads: “Innovation is the process of making changes to something established by introducing something better and, as a consequence, new.”

SAEE president Karel Steyn
SAEE president Karel Steyn

To apply the definition practically we could refer to the new Powerwall, a wall-mounted lithium-ion electric battery for homes and small businesses, or the Tesla Powerpack, a heftier version of the same core product designed for utility scale use which has been all over the news the past few weeks. Batteries, or Lithium-ion batteries, is very well known, however Tesla Energy changed it and made it into something which many believe could be a game changer for making it possible to go off-grid at a reasonable price (in the US anyway) with a lifespan double that of existing batteries. The possible uses of this improved technology increase by the day as users identify more and more opportunities for its application. This example fits well with the Wikipedia definition. Furthermore, Elon Musk stated that Tesla is not only an automotive company but also energy innovation company, a statement which then also supports the Wikipedia definition.

Many examples can be highlighted that a change to make something better is defined as innovation. For instance, Edison did not invent the first incandescent lamp – he invented the first incandescent lamp which was commercially viable. The Kreepy-Krauly, a South African invention, was an improvement for all of those struggling to clean their pools manually while they would much rather be watching their favourite game on TV, etc. etc.

The answer to the question posed must then be an unequivocal; yes! However, it means that we need to be open to the possibilities and we need to work towards finding innovative solutions. These solutions must be specifically focussed on energy conservation, energy use, energy switching, renewable energy generation and energy re, co- & tri-generation.

During the 2013 World Energy Engineering Congress, a group of young people demonstrated their innovative new approach to energy auditing, which was an application, developed with experienced energy engineers, to help in performing energy audits and cut the energy audit and reporting time by 50%. Impressive by any measure! The Efficient Mobile Auditing Technology as it is named, provides tablet-to-cloud solutions for energy auditors and organisations who wants to significantly decrease the time and cost of conducting audits, while at the same time increasing audit quality and efficiency. This means that the energy auditor would only need to follow the app instructions, from audit preparation to final report development with limited involvement of skilled or knowledgeable people. This product therefore makes auditing easier therefore requiring a lower level of skilled and qualified individuals – exactly what South Africa needs. It also creates opportunities for similar apps, some of which may be in the energy measurement and verification environment. The development of applications is in the domain of programmers, which is an area where South Africa excel. (Consider Elon Musk with PayPal and Mark Shuttleworth with his digital certificates, internet security and then the Ubuntu PC operating system). We also often hear of South African primary school kids who developed excellent apps.

Another example where innovation could improve lives is those individuals standing at road-works waving a flag all day every day – it must be utterly frustrating! Yes, it is employment and they do earn an income, but we can automate this boring job with warning lights or if we must, even a mechanical machine waving the flag and train that individual to do more meaningful work! Fixing the roads will be completed much quicker, while they can then do so much more towards improving more roads. The work (fixing roads) would never come to an end with them being better trained/skilled, earning more and being more efficient. Human energy efficiency…, still energy efficiency!

An area which must be seriously considered for innovative approaches is the funding of energy management projects. The Eskom IDM funding is for all practical purposes no more; but many are still clinging to this as a possible solution without considering any other solutions. A previous newsletter touched on funding solutions, but, there are many more innovative options not touched on. Why do we not think out of the box, for example; performance contracting with funders, selling the energy generated (e.g. from PV systems), what about crowd-funding, or co-funding with municipalities / facility owners / technology suppliers / investors, etc.? The possibilities are numerous! The more successful ESCOs are already doing this with it impacting positively on their sustainability and profitability.

Why is innovation then not happening as fast as it should?

When looking at history indications are that we innovate best and most when we are desperate! Especially when people are dying! The world wars, in fact all wars, are excellent examples of how quickly people can adapt, change and find new innovating ways and machinery. Look at how quickly private hospitals found solutions after they experienced load-shedding challenges during early 2008. This is because nothing focusses the mind, effort and resources on finding real solutions, as well as when we are desperate or when lives are at stake!

Full-on load-shedding is with us. Many of us are extremely frustrated, while businesses are threatened with huge losses, which would ultimately affect livelihoods – desperate situations.… and with it, the innovativeness of South Africans is starting to come alive. Lately many of us know to charge all batteries before load-shedding periods, kids run around switching unnecessary appliances and electricity consuming devices off, accountants now have knowledge of UPS’s and converters, medical doctors know of generators, everyone knows solar charged lights and some normal citizens even believe they can design and build their own simple PV solutions (warning: electricity in any form is dangerous). Yes, the time is ripe for good innovative solutions to hit the market worldwide.

Any product or process can, and will, eventually be improved upon. In today’s fast changing world, a product might even be obsolete before it’s brought to the market. To get workable solutions we just have to fast-track the innovation process!

Gary Player famously said: “The more I practice, the luckier I get!” The more we practice in applying our minds on being innovative, the more solutions we will find. We have to drive innovation towards finding sustainable solutions for dealing with the energy and climate change challenges the world experience! When it comes to the future WE have to make it happen! Fortunately everyone is now looking for solutions and we have many who can help in these ventures, the Technology Innovation Agency under the auspices of Department of Trade and Industry and a partner of the Southern African Association for Energy Efficiency and the Western Cape Regional Innovation Forum to name but two; however many others also exist.