For 30 years, Grundfos has supplied stand-alone systems for solar-powered water supply. What started as a ‘right thing to do’ project has become a big, global business
It was 1982. The first compact discs (CDs) hit the market, the 8-bit Commodore 64 computer was launched, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” hit the charts.
Then, the world ran mostly on oil. As for pumps, they were like everything else mechanical – they ran on electricity and no one cared where the power came from.
But in its offices in Denmark and California, USA, Grundfos had already been looking ahead to world of high oil prices, distressing carbon emission levels, and easy access to the clean and renewable fuel source: the sun.
Fast-forward 30 years and Grundfos is a market leader in renewable energy-driven pump solutions. A large portion of the Grundfos product line can run on solar and wind power, allowing some of the most remote areas in the world access to clean water. Now, as renewable energy use goes mainstream, pumps using solar and wind energy are being used for large and small-scale operations in industries around the world.
An early start
Grundfos started working with renewable energy long before it was cost-effective to do so. After the global oil crisis in the 1970s when the world realised that oil resources were not infinite – Grundfos began experimenting with solar.
In 1982, the company entered a solar pump system competition sponsored by the UN’s development programme. Grundfos had built a solar-powered submersible pump with an inverter that took DC electricity from the solar panels and converted it to AC power to run the pump. This project grew into an entire solar-powered system that could supply pure drinking water for a village of 1,000 people.
"The company was getting into the solar market years before there was really a market."
David McMillan, Regional Business Director, Grundfos
The inverter was considered high-tech and was praised in a World Bank report as far superior to other plans. As for market potential, however, it had limited use. Solar panels were seen as bulky and inefficient in commercial markets. Only 200-300 systems per year were sold, mostly to for aid projects in developing countries.
David McMillan, Regional Business Director, says the original decision to create renewable pumps was not about sales. It was about innovation.
“The company was getting into the solar market years before there was really a market because we knew that this would one day become a huge thing,” McMillan says.
Powering the developing world
Areas with unreliable electricity grids – such as those in developing countries – first used Grundfos solar-powered pumps in the 1980s and 1990s.
Regional Senior Business Development Manager Jens Ove Frederiksen says interest in the pumps later expanded to a so-called “Sunbelt Region” of areas around the equator where sunlight was abundant.
More recently in 2008, the company founded Grundfos LIFELINK, an organisation that offers sustainable water solutions to developing countries. The company installs Solar-powered pumps, water towers, and water stations in remote areas. Residents can purchase “credits” via mobile phone and use them to buy potable water.
While the solar-powered pump developed in 1982 resembled the Commodore computer released that same year, the new solar-powered systems are like ‘the iPads of today.
David McMillan, Regional Business Director, Grundfos
McMillan says with many water supply projects in developing areas, the systems are not serviced properly and become unusable after a few years. LIFELINK’s pay system ensures that the pump has income for maintenance and upkeep. In 2012, Grundfos LIFELINK received the World Business and Development Award at Rio +20, the UN conference for sustainable development.
Renewable pump systems like those used for Grundfos LIFELINK spare women and children from the burden of spending hours a day pumping and carrying water, McMillan says. Children can go to school, women can work, and villages are more affluent thanks to clean running water.
“Hand power is replaced by solar power,” says McMillan “More water means a better quality of life for all the people living in the area.”
Renewables go mainstream
A combination of increased efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and capacity are what brought Grundfos renewables to commercial markets. Frederiksen says that up until 2002, 80 percent of products were sold to developing countries. Now, solar and wind-powered systems are increasingly used outside of the developing world for industrial and agricultural applications.
The 2002 launch of SQFlex was a turning point for Grundfos Renewables. The SQFlex system has an inverter inside the pump’s motor, which allows for easy installation and use.
Meanwhile, renewable energy costs decreased. In the 1980s, setting up panels to create 1 watt of solar energy cost approximately USD $20, while today the price is less than USD $2. This makes it more cost-effective for farms, golf courses, hotels and wineries around the world to pump water using solar power.
The size of systems able to use solar power is also changing. The 2013 Renewable Solar Inverter (RSI), makes solar power a possibility for bigger projects than ever before. While SQFlex can pump up to 80,000 liters per day, the RSI can convert submersible pumps with a capacity of up to 500,000 litres per day.
McMillan says the technology still has room to expand as pumps and solar power systems become larger and more efficient. Still, he notes that while the solar-powered pump developed in 1982 resembled the Commodore computer released that same year, the new high-tech solar-powered systems are like “the iPads of today.”
McMillan says the Grundfos leaders’ decision to go in this direction more than three decades ago might have been risky from a business perspective, but it was visionary.
“Was it the best investment to go into renewable systems at the time in terms of immediate market potential? Probably not. But from a ‘right-thing-to-do’ point of view it absolutely was,” he says. “We are now in a time where you can save money, as well as energy, not only from the environmental perspective but it also makes sound business sense in many cases.”
- Stories by Stephanie Bergeron Kinch