Simple innovation could keep lights on for Indians, render inverter redundant

In power-starved India, this novel solution from IIT Madras could transform people's lives and render the mighty inverter obsolete.

If you've ever lived in India for even a brief period, you're probably familiar with a device that is as much a part of the lives of Indian families as the frothy Hindi television soap opera — namely, the inverter.

In a perennially power-starved India, the inverter and accompanying batteries prevent Indian houses from simmering in darkness during one of the innumerable power shortages the country tends to face, thanks to stalled new power projects and bankrupt state electricity boards. Your average inverter can run a certain number of fans and lights, as well as your television, depending on the number of batteries that have been tacked on.

And now, a bunch of professors from the temple of Indian engineering, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), inadvertently plan to render the inverter redundant thanks to a simple innovation.

The brainchild of IIT-Madras director professor Bhaskar Ramamurthi and electrical engineering professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, also from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, this new technology will deliver 48 volts of direct current to select homes in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala as part of a pilot project. Once proven successful, it will be rolled out to the rest of the country.

A dedicated 48V low-power direct current (DC) line will snake its way from the substation to houses, and the current will flow through a separate meter to power three lights, two fans, and a mobile charger. Brushless fans and light-emitting diode (LED) lights that can work on direct current will be powered using this DC power.

This means that during regular blackouts, homes can get uninterrupted power from the grid. Instead of completely shutting down the grid, which is what happens when demand exceeds supply, the Discom will merely shift its supply to the 48V line, which will deliver power at a small fraction of the original and at a different voltage.

Considering the regularity of power outages in the country, the growing gap between demand and supply of power and the number of families who have to swelter in the dark because they can't afford a battery-powered inverter, this service could impact millions of people's lives. Other beneficiaries would be the vast education and healthcare landscape that are most affected when the lights go out.