There’s one problem about the transition to an energy system that optimises screeds of data – it will cost too much to process. A winner at this year’s Australian Technology Competition has a solution.

Data is the light that can lead energy consumers to a higher level of independence, but it’s hard to access and expensive to handle in large volumes. Australian company Future Grid says it has a solution and the judges at the Australian Technology Competition agree, having awarded it this year’s trophy for New Energy.

The company has created software that allows very large volumes of data points to be converted into what CEO Chris Law calls “high-quality decisions or insights”.

Law is based in Melbourne, where he has seen distributors turn the mass deployment of smart meters into “grid sensors” that are generating large amounts of data. “The challenge is converting that data into something useful that will help manage the reliability of the grid,” he says. For energy utilities the service can help them take actions to control and better manage distribution.

United Energy and AusNet Services are signed up and between them are turning out around 10 billion energy data points a day.

The Future Grid philosophy is pretty simple: If energy data is shared, value and innovation will bloom in the market. “It’s to really help drive new ways of managing or reducing the cost of energy to consumers.”

A “data hub” described by Law will be a powerful resource for anyone interested in helping the wider community face down the challenges of volatile and high energy prices. Once customers have access to data currently locked away by utilities they can see where innovation can whittle away costs. “Our vision is how we can improve the community with better, more innovative products that help them manage their energy.”

Instead of inventing a “magic app”, however, Future Grid feels there’s more mileage in helping consumers find solutions so they can solve problems themselves. “There are a lot of smart people out there,” says Law (pictured above, centre). “Making it available to the public will drive innovation for the future.”

Keep it simple

Commercial and industrial users of energy often don’t know if they’re getting good value and it’s not easy to compare offers. Future Grid wants to demystify the process, where a user can see the best deal based on their current usage. “Our first view is around recommending the right tariffs, so you can maximise savings. It’s surprisingly valuable to a lot of customers because no-one really knows and therefore it doesn’t really change.”

Usage changes all the time and Future Grid is relying on a partnership with Sydney-based company Wattwatchers (winner of last year’s Australian Technology Competition prize for New Energy) for the data fed from its powerboard-mounted wireless monitoring hardware.

Law says Future Grid can make all sorts of sense of the data that streams off a monitoring system via its proprietary algorithms and with a little help from “machine learning”. The company has developed a protocol that minimises computer processing effort by 90%, he says. The objective is to make data easily palatable for third parties, who can find solutions to suit a client’s needs.

He suspects new businesses that offer smart systems will find the cost of managing data becomes a problem as clean energy goes mainstream. Once such ventures get bigger, “data becomes the problem; it starts to get cost-prohibitive”.

Peer-to-peer trials that include a handful of participants will get stuck when it’s time to scale up, he reckons. “The bottleneck becomes, how do I make decisions really quickly and how do I do that without having to spend $1 million a month on cloud costs.”

Not many people know it but meters can be inaccurate, he says, but Future Grid can police data and “keep the bastards honest”, to borrow from an old political slogan Law is fond of.

Of course, the best deal today may not be the best deal tomorrow, as usage and retail offers change. Flipping between retailers can be a chore, so wouldn’t it be great if a system could search for the best offer on a continuous basis and flip between retailers without you even knowing? “That’s a bit of a utopian vision but that’s exactly what I had in mind!” says Law. “It’s not possible right now, but it is possible.”

The Future Grid team fell into each other’s orbit while working for an energy business in San Francisco, where they identified a need for users to get tangible value out of sophisticated technology. The problem is that internet-of-things solutions send off a hell of a lot of data, and it’s sometimes very costly to process the stuff, even on the cloud.