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Using Educational Hubs as Incubators for Sustainability Action

There are key advantages in developing specialized technology in an educational institute including: easy access to R&D expertise, incubation support, contribution from students in design and testing phases, and ability to collaborate with multiple private partners at once.

Many progressive educational institutes are embodying sustainability as a core brand value. This move helps institutions to:

  • Stay close to ‘on-horizon’ technologies and align with emerging R&D areas
  • Convert opportunities to interface with corporates (e.g. through piloting interventions)
  • Emphasize a forward looking approach to global leadership  & entrepreneurship
  • Ensure eminence as value-driven organizations
  • Inspire and educate students to integrate sustainability practices into their studies

Incubating innovation

One R&D development has been the invention of sophisticated solar inverter systems at Kongu Engineering College. These inverters enable the delivery of solar power with enhanced quality of power and significant reduction in inefficiencies due to non-linear load variation. The prototype technology aims to greatly advance the applicability of solar energy for industrial growth.

At present, the number of stages and switches in an inverter corresponds to increasing ability of the inverter to reduce harmonic distortion, but creates a rise in cost.  However, this prototype has achieved significant reduction in Total Harmonic Distortion at a fraction of the cost and uses a newly developed intelligent control systems to deliver these results. To put this innovation in context, it is estimated that the US spent USD$2 Billion on reducing non-linear energy distortions in electrical systems in 2013. 


Inverter Type

Number of Switches

Distortion Remaining in Waveform

Market Positioning

Stage 1

4 Switches


Single stage Inverter

Stage 3

12 Switches


Multi stage inverter

Stage 7

28 switches


New to Market

Not only is this a first for inverter technology in general, it has been specifically adapted to deliver performance for solar generation.  The intelligent controls software for the inverter tackles the reliability of solar power by adjusting for variability in generation due to a range factors (e.g. temperature, irradiance) while providing continuity of power for up-to 3 days for a 3KW system.

“We are in conversation with several industries to test this solar inverter and our intelligent control systems”, says Professor S. Albert Alexander, who has led the initiative. “This has already been tested in the regions of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka and for industrial lighting loads, water pumping loads, and standard electric motors [230V, 7A]” At present, the product is geared towards medium scale industries which require a pure form of power, for example, plastic manufacturing, sugar mills, steel, as well as wind and solar generation parks operating at 50Hz.

A lucrative market for sustainable action 

In India, many prominent universities and institutions are promoting sustainability agendas as key components of their overall vision and growth objectives. One example is The Indian School of Business (ISB) and their flagship initiative “Responsible Leadership to make a Sustainable ISB”. 

 Coming from an academic background often means that committees are not necessarily aware of, or have incentives to promote, operational practice improvements that are not linked to student intake, curriculum development and R&D. However, ISB’s sustainability program is championed at a Dean level. Many projects have been undertaken and funded through the school’s core operational budget. Some specific operational initiatives that have received management buy-in include:

  • Replacing air cooled chillers with water cooled chillers with annual recurring savings of 2 million kWh and demand reduction of 600 kW. 
  • Utilizing STP treated water for cooling towers by optimizing the water consumption for landscaping 
  • Conducting LED replacement for street lights (75% reduction in energy consumed) and  office lights (60% reduction  in energy, 20% less fittings )

“While all of our retrofits have positive ROIs, some do not have attractive paybacks, particularly for LED replacement,” reflects Premkumar Krishnan, Senior Manager, Operations and Sustainability at ISB.   “After showcasing savings by operational practice improvements (low hanging fruits), we were able to get investment approvals for many of our projects, including those which had a long payback of more than 5 years.” 

FIG 2: Sustainability Interventions Targeting Education Institutes as Key Customers

  • Captive renewable energy generation (e.g. rooftop-solar)
  • Energy management and controls; cooling and heating systems (HVAC)
  • Efficient lighting (LEDs)
  • Organic waste recycling, bio-gas / biomass and composting
  • Domestic wastewater treatment and recycling 
  • EVs and fleet management; last mile mobility for students; non-motorised mobility for campus
  • Access to bulk  paper, e-waste, and plastic waste-streams for recovery & recycling


Catalyzing culture change

“Overcoming occupants’ mindset/perception in some of the retrofits was a challenge initially,” explains Krishnan. “This impacted retrofits like recycling STP treated water for flushing; LEED rated plumbing fixtures in residential campus areas; retrofitting conventional lights with LEDs in office spaces. We have had to overcome this by religiously sensitizing our people.  Today, we are very much in line with our goals and we are on track to achieving these goals by 2015.”

Unlike the barriers associated with sharing corporate IP, academic knowledge is more freely shared. For example ISB has been sharing sustainability best practices to other IITs, IIMs and international schools. It further disseminates lessons learned through seminars conducted by FICCI, CII, and BEE. Further, educational hubs encourage a confluence of global subject matter experts and naturally interface with industry and policy leaders. 

The habits, values and mindsets of generations of students are often shaped by the values and purpose of the education institute itself. Hence, educational institutes present an opportunity to usher in large scale cultural changes required to support sustainable resource management, but only if “practice” meets “principles” in a credible way. Indian universities are responsible for crafting the leaders, policy makers, doctors, engineers, business men and teachers of tomorrow so it is critical to implement a sustainable mindset that students in turn can apply in their field of study. A campus wide mentality in every aspect from campus operations to the curriculum is necessary to achieve this goal.  

Overall, prominent institutes in India are also pitching themselves as a sound platform for R&D and entrepreneurship related to sustainability. Educational institutes in India will continue to be a natural focal point for sustainability conversations, creating a ripple effect as students leaving from different disciplines are empowered with the ideas of sustainability. 



ISB and Kongu Engineering College are Parivaratan Awards nominees for 2014

Image Credits: Flickr/ Avolore

Author: Sustainability Outlook
Document Tag: Technology Policy Tracker