Be an Energy Saver

CEEA’s Efficiency Matters Blog

Why innovators need to be problem solvers

Energy efficient products and services need to do more than save money and energy to be successful

Problems solved? The Wilo pump saves space, making room for more tenants.

Problems solved? The Kumpan electric scooter avoids traffic and GHG.

Innovation is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Entrepreneurs embrace it as they churn out new ideas to take to market. Politicians and economists refer to it as a blanket panacea for the economy. And I hear it at conferences throughout the year, often on a generic innovation panel, as if innovation is one big, uniform thing. But I think we need to be more specific about what innovation can really do to make it resonate for people. We need to take more of an engineering approach so people can understand what innovation can accomplish.

Last March I was in Toronto for a lecture given by Paul Cadario at the Munk School of Global Affairs. He’s a friend who also happens to be on the school’s advisory board on innovation and global sustainable development. When the word innovation came up all the students rolled their eyes, probably suffering from its overuse, and then Paul challenged them. He asked them to think about innovation by answering ‘what problem are you trying to solve?’ This excited the students and Paul reviewed World Bank projects that exemplified this approach, including one in Indonesia that gave villages the opportunity to oversee their development project choices, such as a road or a school, and their implementation. This helped avert corruption and shoddy work.

Energy efficiency is more than being efficient

That experience stuck with me in September when I attended a session sponsored by the Canadian German Chamber of Industry and Commerce, where EU and German energy efficiency policies were discussed. There were several companies making presentations, but two in particular excited me because their businesses clearly addressed how to solve problems. Steffen Werner from WILO Canada spoke on how to reduce CO2 emission with his company’s highly efficient commercial and residential pumps. And Alexander Welbers from Kumpan Electric told us about his company’s sustainable electric scooters that are using smart battery technology – a green competitor to Vespa that retails from $1,999 to $4,799.

What was great about their case studies was that they both resolved energy efficiency and productivity problems, as well as other real challenges. Wilo is known for addressing space constraints in buildings in Europe and Asia, which allows landlords to rent out to more paying tenants. Kumpan is all about getting commuters around crowded urban areas, reducing GHG, solving parking issues and avoiding traffic. The challenges they tackle resonate with consumers.

A call to pivot the economy towards an innovation mindset

Allen Lau from Wattpad wrote a piece in the Globe on the need for Canadian politicians to pivot, or shift, the economy towards an innovation economy. And he asked for policies and frameworks to support it. While Lau calls for the government to acknowledge that the Internet is the new oil – Wattpad is an app for published and unpublished writers and readers — his overlying argument is that we need to support entrepreneurs who innovate.

We’re also hearing this in the climate change community. The new chief of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Hoesung Lee says it’s time for researchers to focus on finding solutions to climate change instead of constantly tracking its negative impacts. He believes this step is essential to motivate governments and businesses to actually cut GHG emissions.

Energy efficiency innovation goes blue chip

Let’s face it energy efficiency entrepreneurs are becoming mainstream entrepreneurs. GE sees the opportunity and has announced its new energy-efficiency-focussed business Current, which includes solar power, energy storage, EV charging equipment, and of course LED lighting and software. The problems GE is solving: businesses want to invest less capital upfront and control their operating expenses.

Apple and Alphabet (new Google) have also invested in energy innovation that solves problems. Their platforms, HomeKit and Nest respectively, will allow other companies to innovate on top of them. With the advent of smartphones and smart homes Apple and Alphabet have anticipated that consumers are likely to experience app fatigue as they become inundated with everything from thermostats, smart locks and LED lights to home monitoring, rooftop solar and electric vehicle charging. Their platforms will ultimately make it easier for consumers to manage their apps and for entrepreneurs to avoid reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

A call to Canadian energy efficiency entrepreneurs

So what problems are we solving? Perhaps if we began thinking of innovation in this way, we could be even more successful.

Posted October 27, 2015

Elizabeth McDonald is president of CEEA