PC vs Mac, Android vs iOS, USB vs a multitude of other mobile phone charging connectors – these are all examples of interoperable vs non-interoperable ecosystems.
The various connectors used with mobile phones, prior to standardisation around USB-type connectors
The predominant model in the off-grid solar sector is that of non-interoperable systems – brand-specific connectors combined with proprietary digital protocols. For PAYGo consumers, this means they must purchase their solar home system (SHS) and appliances from the same company. They are unable to use an appliance with another company’s SHS, or use another company’s appliance with their SHS. For cash sale customers, it results in limited flexibility and choice of appliances, and an increased risk of buying an appliance that is not compatible with the SHS.
Experience from other electronics and consumer goods industries shows that greater standardisation and interoperability is a proven strategy for market growth. It enables products, services, and information systems to work well together, reducing product development and manufacturing costs, while enabling greater competition and specialisation.
The off-grid solar sector, however, is a unique beast – a large portion of SHS kits and appliances are sold on a pay-as-you-go (PAYGo) basis to low-income consumers in complex economies, and an interoperable ecosystem can present risks to these consumers and companies alike.
Ports on a solar home system
Connector for an appliance. Image: Nigel Preston, Azuri Technologies Ltd.
The benefits and risks
There are good reasons for non-interoperable systems – PAYGo companies need to ensure consumers don’t use the appliance with an alternative power supply, and then of course, cease making payments. Furthermore, accommodating off-brand appliances would make it much harder to honour the warranty and ensure the overall quality of service, e.g. if a less efficient TV was used it would impact the customer experience of lighting and other services, and risk damaging the brand. In a worst-case, electrical incompatibility could damage the appliance or system.
On the other hand, greater interoperability offers potential value to consumers and companies, and could help grow the overall market:
- Consumers would have a wider choice of appliances and increased options for second-hand markets, e.g. to buy, sell or gift. Happy customers and easy transactions result in bigger markets.
- For SHS manufacturers, interoperability standards could deliver benefits in cost reduction, improved quality, increased supplier capability and know-how and shorter time to market for new products.
- A standard could attract big appliance manufacturers and/or connector suppliers to the off-grid market – potentially increasing the quality and reducing costs of these items.
- Distributors and PAYGo 2.0 companies would have a wider choice of appliances and lower costs of developing a combined hardware, software offering, and would be able to switch more easily between suppliers. There is also potential to improve supply chain efficiency, e.g. by sourcing locally.
- It would bring environmental benefits by reducing appliance obsolescence and enhancing repairability.
GOGLA’s sales database recorded global sales of 1.5 million SHS kits and 1.2 million appliances in 2019, with the main appliances sold being TVs in East Africa and fans in South Asia. There are currently numerous SHS connector types in use, with no standardisation among industry, international bodies, or at national standards agencies.
We envisage a market in which both interoperable and non-interoperable ecosystems can co-exist and compete as part of the commercial landscape. A critical mass of industry players is necessary to establish an interoperable ecosystem and realise its benefits, and this should be entirely voluntary, driven by companies that see value in alignment.
We believe now is the time to start this transition. The off-grid solar industry is young and growing quickly; such transformation may not be possible in a more advanced market in which companies are settled in their business model and “locked-in” to large product fleets. A stepwise approach is sensible, in which the building blocks of interoperability are created by manufacturers, rolled out to distributors, and finally available to customers. This will be a long-term strategy, with decision points along the way and requiring measures such as quality assurance and labeling.
Defining voluntary interoperability standards
We believe that interoperability standards should be the building blocks for innovation, not the basis for commoditisation (we don’t want all products to look and do the same!).
The GOGLA Technology Working Group has convened a group of companies that are interested in defining voluntary interoperability standards and implementing them on their product ranges. This builds on the Compatibility and Interoperability Technology Roadmap developed by Efficiency for Access. At the recent Global Off-Grid Solar Forum in Nairobi, we held a public session debating interoperability and a working meeting for interested GOGLA industry members. Twelve leading SHS kit manufacturers participated in the meeting and concluded that:
- A family of power connectors for SHS kits and appliances is a low-hanging fruit for standardisation. A standardised data connector is also worth exploring.
- A standardised appliance communications protocol (or parts thereof) is worth exploring, though a more complex topic.
A common connector type would be a foundation for greater appliance interoperability, though not sufficient in itself: an upcoming blog will focus on communications protocols and PAYGo activation.
As any traveller knows, there are a plethora of grid electricity standards – 14 main plug/socket types, 8 voltages, and 2 frequencies to be precise. We believe that the off-grid solar sector can be a more coherent industry, one that maximises value for companies, customers, and the environment.