What does the energy industry have to do to engage people? What do consumers want and how do they want it delivered? A panel of technology boffins pondered these questions on Day 2 of the All-Energy conference in October, as power to do something about the clean energy revolution shifts to consumers.

Panel participants (above, left to right):

  • Phil Livingston, managing director, Redback Technologies
  • Stephen Richardson, technology innovation engineer, Ergon Energy
  • Nathan Dunn, managing director, Enphase Australia
  • Dean Spaccavento, CEO, Reposit Power
  • Stefan Jarnason (panel chair), CEO, Solar Analytics

No turning back now

Reposit’s Dean Spaccavento says the sharing economy and “internetification” of energy are changing the market for good. The generation technologies that allow distributed energy are renewable, especially solar and storage, and once consumers get their hands on these energy assets they can take part in energy’s equivalent or Airbnb or Uber, he says. “The growth of that and the technology associated with that is driving a decentralisation of infrastructure,” Spaccavento says. The zero marginal cost of renewable energy and “stupidly” cheap computing power allow a change from a centrally planned economy to one that’s shared.

Tech meets the challenge

As inverter technology becomes more sophisticated the possibilities for solar-owners are expanding, says Nathan Dunn from Enphase. “There’s a lot more energy that’s going into innovating around how those inverters can be connected and communicate … which then allows the customer to develop their own thought process around energy economy,” he says. As storage becomes cheaper, the case to maximise self-consumption becomes ever stronger.

Put to best use

At Queensland energy utility Ergon the thinking is the same but also a little different, said Stephen Richardson. As power electronics get smarter and smaller they can be put to work determining the best use of renewables. “We have a bit more of the knowhow to really start to manage those devices and we’re starting to get the integrated control,” he says. “The information is now in consumers’ hands.”

Data analytics and the cost of communications are also becoming cheap enough to not be a hindrance to the cost of smart technology. “That is really opening up access to information about people and their data usages.” Nevertheless, Richardson admits the technology available on the market has a way to go before it has evolved to the telecommunications equivalent of a smartphone. “If we can crack that, the rollout of renewables will go a lot faster.”

Keep costs down

The consumer wants a low-cost system and cheap power, says Redback Technologies managing director Phil Livingston. Providers of technology are at a nexus point, he says, where costs of competing are dropping alongside the costs of solar PV and storage.

“It’s quite an exciting time,” he says. “The consumer’s mentality is switching into understanding.” The key to creating tariffs that allow consumers to get credit back from their investment in clean energy technology is whether the industry can keep the language simple and produce fully cost-wrapped systems, he says.

Drop the tech talk

Spaccavento may run a technology company but he admits consumers only care about comfort and (sometimes) value, not gadgetry that runs jazzy algorithms. “What they want is comfort. They want to live in their home and not think about what it is that makes their home good to live in, it just wants to be good to live in,” he says.

Spaccavento admits he’s the same. “My air-conditioner sits on 20 day and night, summer, winter, I don’t care.”

Comfort-seekers and value-seekers form the mainstream of the market, he says, “and none of us on this panel is addressing them very well at the moment”. Smart energy companies that expect to attract householders by pushing technical specs and possibilities will miss the opportunity, he says. “If you get [the message] wrong, they shut down. They’re not interested.”

You’ll save this much…

Dunn at Enphase agrees the tech is probably superfluous and the real goal is to understand what consumers are trying to achieve. “I don’t think you can truly block every single Australian consumer into a particular subsector,” he says, and clean energy technology providers don’t have the resources to visit every household and ask them the question. “At the end of the day they don’t know what they don’t know.”

The right approach, he says, is to educate homeowners about their consumption and communicate the money-saving benefits of a home energy system. “Quite regularly we will talk to customers about the implementation of monitoring before we put any hardware on.”

What do customers want?

At Ergon, the needs of customers are as varied as the enormous terrain the network covers. The utility surveys its customers annually about their requirements but Richardson also cites the Solar Cities trial on Magnetic Island as a valuable lesson. “We had customers who want to know how the technology works – they want to pull the voltage and current wave forms out of their meters – right down to people who say, ‘I really don’t care.’”

Within the majority who are fairly uninterested some are happy to change their lifestyle to meet energy consumption, including retirees. “Their driver is cost,” he says. “All they want to do is maximise the feed-in tariff and minimise their import.” These are the energy-conscious consumers who will do all their cooking during the day and shift other use to night.

“We’re seeing a changing peak load in some of our areas due to that interaction.” Others want to see how far they can push down reliance on the grid, with the view of one day going off-grid – which he admits is a concern for Ergon. “We may be the poles and wires, nothing else, but we’ll still be part of that market.”

Weighing the cost

Redback’s Livingstone says for customers the money is a big part of committing to clean energy. “You want to have something that is sexy and cool as well, but I think the money is really the big part,” he says.

If systems can be installed with a return of investment around five years, as happened in 2012, “you hit a groundswell of interest,” Livingstone says. “It’s not because solar isn’t cool at a seven-year ROI or a 10-year ROI, it’s because solar starts to work for somebody’s hip pocket.”