COMMENT | The “internet of things” will deliver power to electricity consumers in a form they never knew, writes Gavin Dietz, all thanks to unlocked data.

I have this recurring thought-line where I’m trying to explain to my digital native teenage children the way the energy retail system works, or rather doesn’t work for consumers. My kids aren’t quite that old yet but will be soon enough, so I need to work on the spiel.

Based on their daily experience with the internet and the world of information and communication technologies, I know they’ll be expecting that electricity is something they can monitor, control and pay for via an app in real-time whenever they like. If a service is important to them, and the electronic juice that keeps all of their devices powered up and working definitely is, then they’ll expect control at their fingertips.

Of course, that’s not how older consumers like me and most likely you have ever experienced the electricity system. I can imagine the look on teen faces when they realise that in most cases the consumers, the people actually paying for the product, don’t have much control over the data at all.

It gets worse. As taxpayers we’ve almost certainly paid towards building or subsidising significant parts of the energy system. As consumers we pay for the electricity we use and we even get charged for the meter that measures consumption to send us bills. We don’t, however, own or control our energy data and to the extent that the utilities and the regulators grant us access; they do so on their terms, not ours. Then if we move suppliers, the historical data won’t move with us, which just helps to prove that it was never ours.

This information asymmetry empowers utilities and disempowers consumers, which is exactly how “old energy” likes it. Is it just me, or is that plain wrong?

If you agree that it’s unjust, then the good news is that Internet of Things (IoT) has arrived just in time to set things right. Suddenly, wherever I go in the energy sector, there’s a rising level of understanding that the convergence of distributed energy technologies led by solar PV and battery storage with information and communication technologies is driving the IoT transformation towards the “new energy” era.

If you already have solar, you need data to know if your rooftop system is working properly; and also in order to manage time-of-use for major appliances to maximise the amount of self-generated energy that is consumed in the home or small business rather than exported to the grid for little financial reward. (Unless you are one of the fortunate solar owners still on a feed-in tariff like the super-generous 60 cents a kWh under the soon-to-be-phased-out NSW bonus scheme.)

If you are thinking about adding storage to solar, then data is absolutely vital to size this major investment correctly. If you do have opportunities to trade with the main grid or participate in local grid or microgrid trading, you’ll need data for that too.

If you don’t have solar, the data is still important for managing energy efficiency, buying electricity better and upgrading to solar and maybe storage in the future.

The IoT for energy, however, is going to be doing a lot more than the behind-the-meter examples above. Yes it will be disruptive, but also incredibly useful. Our governments and industries have plenty of experience with developing and managing traditional centralised infrastructure such as big coal-fired power stations and transmission lines, but very little familiarity with how to handle millions of sites all generating, storing and consuming clean electricity from the sun. The IoT will provide the real-time distributed visibility and control functionality to manage all of that distributed energy resource via the “things” that make, store and use electricity.

This won’t happen, however, if the “old energy” command and control approach persists. Consumers can’t be locked out of this better energy future by conventional utilities and metering companies seeking to exploit the regulatory system to perpetuate the old order. That’s not how the IT world works, and it can’t be how the “new energy” era is structured.

The golden rule of the IoT era for energy should be this: consumers own their energy data. If others want to use it, for whatever reasons, then they need to negotiate with the owners of the data: the consumers. If the data has financial value, for whatever purpose, then the consumer must have the ability to benefit themselves, and choice as to whether they want to trade their data in the first place.

The IoT will provide the tools to do all of this at incredibly low transactional costs in real time. Old energy will become a relic, and what a story I will have to tell my teens.

 

Gavin Dietz is managing director of Wattwatchers, winner of the 2016 Australian Technologies Competition New Energy Award. He formerly was global chief information officer for the world’s largest smart meter manufacturer, Landis+Gyr.