Successful businesses anticipate their customers’ needs. Often those needs are uncovered through market research or predicted over years of studying trends. But every once in a while, they just come knocking on your door.
In the case of Brad Meissner, Product Manager – Diesel Generators at KOHLER Power Systems, that need came in the form of a request from Water Mission’s CEO during an Innovation for Good retreat in Italy. The head of the nonprofit clean water charity had a specific ask of Kohler—to develop an automatic solar-to-generator power transfer switch for off-grid water filtration pumping stations used in refugee camps around the world.
In much of the developing world, solar power is ideal for many applications—including the water filtration systems installed by Water Mission. Generator power is used as backup, when solar is unavailable, to keep up with the need for clean water. But therein, lies the problem at hand.
Currently, the switch between solar and generator power is manual, meaning someone must physically flip a switch, but this person must be paid and often travels up to 30 miles to perform the action. This inconvenience often means the change isn’t made and the unit relies on generator or grid power 24 hours per day, increasing costs to the community or refugee camp.
“Around the same time that I met with Water Mission, the I-Prize was announced, and we decided to enter our idea to see if we could make it a reality for them,” said Brad. The annual I-Prize competition invites associates to propose new products and business opportunities to address environmental or social issues—particularly those aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on safe water and sanitation, reliable power and responsible production and consumption.
“Using technology from our existing generator standby transfer switches and synchronous alternators, we proposed a solution that automatically switches between solar energy and generator power,” explained Brad. “The I-Prize competition provided a platform to work through the challenges of the idea and present it for funding.”
Dubbed the “Intelligent Power Team,” Brad and his engineering and marketing colleagues ultimately won the I-Prize incubation funding and immediately developed a prototype for Water Mission to test in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico. The unit performed well, and Water Mission immediately requested 27 more for the area. The next step is to install another prototype in a Uganda refugee camp—where Water Mission sees the largest need.
The yet-to-be-named intelligent power switch has officially been added to the Kohler Power Systems new product development schedule—bringing the concept one step closer to reality.
“We have the expertise, but we didn’t even know this need existed,” added Brad. “It’s been a constant reminder that we’re more than just a business. We’re here to make the world a better place. And the I-Prize is a big part of that.”