Energy Hack 2016, a two-day brainstorming blitz that bunched together “hackers, hustlers and hipsters”, wound down on Sunday night at the University of Melbourne having produced a few new solutions to the energy puzzle. “If we could have bottled the energy that was in that room we could have solved Australia’s energy problem overnight,” says Chris Murphy, strategic advisor to Powershop Australia and one of eight judges at the event, a joint initiative of the Melbourne Energy Institute and Powershop Australia.
More than 100 participants took part, with 13 teams presenting energy sharing apps, solar energy planning applications, a virtual reality game in which kids could visit renewable energy sites and a matchmaking service for renewable energy project owners, among other ideas.
The process started on Friday night at 5pm, with everyone told to clear off home at 10pm that night and on Saturday. Teams were assembled from individuals who may never have worked with each other before, or even met.
The cerebral pressure-cooker model paid off, says Murphy. “By Sunday evening they had put together some prototypes and some fairly exciting opportunities.”
The team Planet Lovers came first with a consumer platform that uses machine learning to promote energy efficiency. The winners had the edge as their idea had “real prospect” for commercial development, Murphy says. The team included PhD students Zahra Ghafoori, Fateme Fahiman, Neil Ang and Michael Xiaoting Wang (pictured above). They took an electric scooter and a trip in a Tesla out to the community-owned Hepburn Wind Farm.
“Existing energy services don’t use the full potential of big data to provide deep insights for consumers,” said Planet Lovers co-founder Zahra Ghafoori. “We will use recent breakthroughs in machine learning techniques to dig into data and improve individual and collective intelligence on energy usage.”
Runner-up Solmates’ entry looked at load matching for solar power usage and, in third place, Powerbot found a way to manage peak load by getting consumers out of the house.
Team Spark bagged $5,000 from the Victorian State Government for its Rover app, which promotes renewable energy to primary school students.
It takes all sorts
The event wasn’t the exclusive domain of electrical engineers, Murphy says. Other disciplines represented included business, psychology, software programming, teaching, consumer behaviour, data management, economics… “We rounded them all together to try to get that diversity to play off each other and spark some creativity, and it seemed to work,” he says. “The diversity helped to spark the creativity.”
Sitting back and taking in the hum as a roomful of young people formed huddles over ways to solve problems is a lot different from enduring the din produced by folk with plenty of experience in the energy sector as they complain about who has caused problems. “It was good to have some really positive, optimistic discussions,” Murphy says. “We had people from networks, regulators, generators, universities and others who had no experience in the energy industry working together to produce outcomes.”
The industry is stacked with optimists on one side and “grey-haired, grizzled old men who have seen it all and have trouble imagining it changing” on the other, Murphy says, but when you put both personality types together you get positive outcomes.
The talent on display over the weekend “well and truly surpassed our expectations”, says Powershop CEO Ed McManus. “We are particularly encouraged by the passion for renewable energy and community energy that came through in many of the pitches.”
The electricity retailer also announced a Powershop Labs program, where it will open its headquarters every few months to share its knowledge and offer advice to early stage start-ups.