A software billing service hopes to engage energy retailers who want to entice customers with dynamic, flexible offerings.

The energy billing process should be simple. Generators sell energy, then retailers buy it and sell it on to consumers, who are charged for what their meters show they’ve used. How can anyone complain about something nice and old-fashioned like that?

It’s fine to be nostalgic, but the energy system has evolved so far and so fast that yesterday’s billing systems might be holding up tomorrow’s way-more-efficient solutions.

“As this world of distributed energy resources [DER] becomes bigger and more complex … the retailers just won’t be able to keep up,” says Flux Federation chief client officer Jessica Venning-Bryan. “Unless there’s an investment in software.”

Venning-Bryan says the energy retail sector is hampered by billing systems that can’t adapt to the new generating and storage hardware, ways of transacting and commercial relationships that have sprung up around DER. It’s a serious problem, because consumers are slowly becoming aware of the possibilities of customising their energy use to the most economic supply options, or the other way around.

Retailers who can easily offer best-fit solutions to their customers will have the upper hand. “We have a saying: you can’t sell what you can’t bill,” she tells EcoGeneration.

Flux’s software-as-a-service product FlexiBill has seen a lift in customer numbers and a 24% boost in sales of renewables for New Zealand utility Meridian (which owns Flux and is FlexiBill’s first customer).

Five-minute flexibility

The opportunities for retailers to do something interesting with billing are multiplying as more flexible tariffs are enabled by the introduction of five-minute settlement and the growing demand response market. By quickly customising offers that reward a battery-charging regime that supports the grid, say, retailers can take part in the “sustainability opportunity”.

The way Venning-Bryan tells it, the cloud-based FlexiBill software can manage data at any interval, from any device – metered or non-metered – and can accommodate any type of tariff design, with participants including generators, retailers, distributors and consumers. “Anybody participating in the system can do any of those things at any degree of granularity from any device.”

Venning-Bryan claims FlexiBill, which has earned the ISO 27001 certification for security, allows for custom tariffs to be designed and deployed in less than five minutes. “That makes it a live product.” At the retail end, she says FlexiBill also allows for quick design and testing of new product ideas. “That experimentation is what we believe is good for retailers but also good for the market.”

Changed conditions ahead

If retailers want to appeal to customers who are becoming conscious of how their energy is sourced, they had better start imagining new ways of proving themselves. If they stay stuck in the mud, consumers will be quickly tempted by new entrants who are happy to be flexible.

“We’re starting to see it. We’ve got the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple all starting to play in the energy tech space,” Venning-Bryan says. “If existing retailers don’t make some changes and figure out how they are going to participate in this new economy arising out of mass uptake of DER, they will just be displaced.”

As retailers adapt to the here-and-now they are tempted, she says, “to retrofit some functionality into the software they were already using or, worst case, start a new spreadsheet that three people handle every billing cycle to try to make the new technology work in some way, through their retail model.”

Retailers should get with the times, she reckons.

“When a system is very self-sufficient it’s fine, but when a retailer has to participate in the commercial relationship in some way it’s incredibly inefficient and error-prone.”