Meet Elisa Lai, Senior Associate, Market Development & Innovation Team

In celebration of CLASP's 20th anniversary, each month we profile one of our team members. This month, we sat down with Elisa Lai, a Senior Associate on the Market Development & Innovation team.

In celebration of CLASP’s 20th anniversary, each month we profile one of our team members. This month, we sat down with Elisa Lai, a Senior Associate on the Market Development & Innovation team.

Elisa, tell us about your educational and professional background.

I’m originally from Taiwan and moved to the US for graduate school. I studied Global Environmental Policies and International Organizations. I thought about becoming a diplomat but the fields of energy, climate change, and the environment were really interesting to me. It happens that around the time of my graduation the Kyoto Protocol was coming to an end, and it was an exciting time to discover what next ‘big thing’ was going to be considered in its place. Because of these events, I thought that perhaps a research-based non-profit would be a better place for me because I would be able to make more of an impact on the most important issue of our generation.

How did you learn about CLASP and why did you decide to join the team?

Nine years ago I was an intern for the United Nations Foundation working within the field of climate change and education; raising the awareness of climate issues in high schools. I was looking for job opportunities at the same time. One of my contacts at the United Nations Foundation knew that there was a vacancy at this really small non-profit called CLASP. My prior experiences had been very broad within the field of climate change, but had progressed to the communications side of the issue. My contact knew CLASP’s CEO, Christine, and recommended that I apply to the organization.

I ended up joining CLASP as a Research and Communications Assistant. I would say that my work now is a huge departure from where I started in the organization, but that it was a great beginning. Joining CLASP on the communications team gave me a high-level understanding of strategic objectives, how our work impacts each country, and a general birds-eye view of everything occurring in the organization. It was through the communications role that I was able to build my knowledge and technical expertise. In fact, I don’t think I would be in the position I am today if it wasn’t for the strong foundation provided by that initial role. And I’ve enjoyed that as the organization has grown, I’ve also grown professionally. During these past nine years I’ve been given a lot of freedom to choose my career path within the organization. In fact, about five years ago CLASP went through major growth and opportunities in global research, clean energy access, international cooperation, policy and research, among others, were all presented to me as alternative career paths.

What is your role at CLASP and what are you currently working on?

As a Senior Associate on the Market Development & Innovation team I focus on providing high-level renewable energy services to people who have very limited access to energy. My area of expertise is data sharing and quality assurance for off-grid appliances. Through my work, I endeavor to ensure that appliances are high-quality, high-performing and live up to the expectations of off-grid consumers. In fact, a lot of my work is about building the foundation to increase off-grid market growth by assisting in defining the quality of products. This includes developing a consistent test method that all of the actors in the market can use to ensure that the data we collect about off-grid appliances are comparable, consistent, and accurate. This is vital to the off-grid market because it’s still so nascent and people feel very appreciative that this type of technical assistance is available.

I’ve been supporting the Global LEAP Awards since its inception. When we began, we started by learning about who off-grid consumers are and their requirements for energy services. It was from there that we launched the Awards for LED room lighting and off-grid televisions. I still recall that when we first hosted the television awards less than 10 TVs were nominated for the competition. But with each award year the competition grows, and the second year of the television competition received more than 20 nominations. It’s great to see how quickly the market is growing and how our work is leveraged for business decisions and contributing to the growth of the global solar appliance market.

What is the Equip Data Tool?

The Equip Data tool is an online database that shares performance data for off-grid appliances. Although there are a lot of product databases for almost every grid-connected market around the world, this wasn’t true for the off-grid market. These tools are vital for individuals and companies to make decisions about policy, procurement, and for consumers to make purchasing decisions. That’s when we came up with the idea of creating a database for the off-grid market.

There are three core groups that currently utilize the Equip Data tool: manufacturers, distributors, and off-grid investors, but the tool can be applicable to broader groups. We assist manufacturers in testing new products that are coming to market. By testing products we discover how their appliance stands up against others and report on weaknesses in products, how to make a product more efficient, even the cost competitiveness in the market. The tool is especially helpful for young or small distribution companies who source appliances that operate with solar home systems. For these companies, they invest a lot of time and resources in finding the appliances that work with a particular solar home system. This database enables them to find the appliances that work; faster and more cost-effectively. Lastly, investors operating in the off-grid market utilize the Equip Data tool as a type of soft guarantee to boost their confidence that products are durable regardless of a company’s short credit history or extremely poor customer base.

How does the Equip Data Tool work?

CLASP built the Equip Data tool from the ground-up, and what you’re seeing online is just the tip of the iceberg. The data collection process started in 2015 when we sent teams to a variety of off-grid markets. There, we conducted interviews and surveys at stores to learn which types of appliances were being sold. We gathered information on appliance sizes, power consumption, warranties, and more. From there, we selected appliance samples that were representative of the industry and began product testing to add this data to the data set, eventually the tool. The other source of data is through the Global LEAP Awards competition. Those products undergo the same random sampling and testing process, however, they are often top-of-the-line. Because of this, the Equip Data tool provides an interesting contrast for products being sold and consumed in the off-grid market. There are products that are potentially lower quality, and those that are the highest quality on the market.

Today, we have more than 300 different products in the Equip Data tool, providing a variety of product information such as power consumption, pricing, and market location. We began with televisions, fans, and refrigerators and are in the process of adding solar water pumps. We started with the first three appliances because of potential consumer demands. Off-grid consumers will typically start from a solar lantern, then a solar home system with small appliances like radios, followed by a television or fan. What may come after that is a refrigerator or solar water pump; income-generating products. A couple of front-runners for what might be added to the database next are electric pressure cookers and agricultural processing equipment.

How do you envision the Equip Data Tool evolving?

Overall, the tool was designed in order to evolve into a quality assurance tool and I believe that it’s in a very good position to provide this type of service for the off-grid market. Policymakers are starting to pay more attention to the quality of off-grid appliances in their markets. This prompts us to consider specific off-grid product markets where the product technologies have become more mature and sales are reaching a certain scale; they could be ready for policy interventions. This is somewhat controversial to say because only four years ago the market was very new and so nascent that policy would have inhibited its growth. The television and fan markets are reaching maturity now and there is also a good variety of competition. It is important to introduce effective policies that can help create enabling environments for high-quality products to thrive in the market, while preventing the influx of low-quality products going into the market. We are taking a human angle to thinking about policy. Essentially, a good policy ensures consumers are being protected from bad-quality products and are getting the energy services they need from the products they are using.

After nine years with CLASP, what keeps you motivated and engaged in your work?

My time at CLASP has included several different phases and each of these phases have something new to me. So, nothing gets old and the work isn’t routine because we’re consistently taking on new projects that we’re applying our knowledge to. I continue to be engaged in my work because I’m constantly learning, and that’s challenging and exciting. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn and grow with the off-grid solar market and that’s something that is really attractive about working at CLASP.


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