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The Tech Disruption Series: Energy Tech

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Is the revolution in energy technology that will wean the planet off its fossil fuel dependence well underway?
We are now looking at more than 3 million electric cars running worldwide. There are days where entire countries are powered by clean energy as coal use continues to plummet. Years of heavy investment have made renewable power a competitive, low-cost reality.

Bringing all of this closer to home is the technology being developed at the consumer end of the market. An exciting new generation of technology, start-ups and sciences is shaking up a centralised, creaking system in the hope of creating a marketplace that gives consumers more choice, more control and ultimately – saves money and the planet.
 
Four key players in this space joined journalist and broadcaster Georgie Barrat for a live panel event at Fora Borough, the latest location to join Fora’s stable of innovative London co-working spaces. The debate ran as part of The Tech Disruption podcast series which meets the “disruptors” at the forefront of radically altering their industry.
 
The first question to emerge as the panellists introduced themselves was whether new energy suppliers can challenge the stranglehold of the “big six” on the UK market.
 
Stephen Fitzpatrick was one of the earliest “challengers”, founding OVO Energy in 2009. “When we launched there were the big six and the small six … the big six had a 99% market share,” he explained. Since then, suppliers such as British Gas and Npower have seen their market share drop to 80%, and 60 energy start-ups have launched. “Energy was unfashionable, not the sexiest industry to go into. It’s becoming now a little bit more trendy”. Stephen said that with more competition and the current pace of change, he was now more worried about new entrants adapting to the market.
Hayden Wood is another new entrant, co-founding Bulb three years ago on the back of his poor experience as consultant for an “old energy” firm. He and Stephen were both prompted to set up their own operations by a culture of bad customer service, lack of willingness to adopt new technology and high costs and prices.

He told the panel “energy is going through a massive transition. Instead of being burned in a massive power station and being shipped in one direction over the grid, homes are now able to generate their own power, store their own power … they have much more control over when they choose to use certain devices or charge certain things and we think that that system … is quite a complicated thing. That’s why we got into this because as an energy supplier you can simplify it and make it accessible for people and give that control back to the user”.
 
While energy retail is expanding to give more choice, the switching space is also seeing technological innovation that is giving customers more control. Jane Lucy, founder and CEO of The Labrador, a free comparison switching service, says the onus on switching should not be placed on the customer. Her business model allows automatic switching to the lowest cost provider without the customer having to lift a finger.  
 
“Less than one in five people switch every year. Most people know you can save money by switching but it doesn’t always convert into action,” she said. “The technology we use enables us to remove that onus from the customer and allows us to do that for them”. 
So how can the ageing infrastructure of the UK electricity grid cope with the “disruption” of greater demand for renewables and increased electrification?
 
The panel agreed that instead of power being supply-led, it must evolve to become about  controlling demand. The complexity is huge and we are only just at the beginning of that journey, said Stephen.
 
“There’s only so much you can do in retail, and beyond that you have to go deeper into the energy sector and understand what the implications are of increasing renewables,” he said. “If we bring in these intermittent sources that we cannot control and we are dependent on the weather, it really changes the way you have to build the grid. And the way we see that happening is that you build a lot of flexibility on demand .. and use intelligent software to manage how those assets are charging and storing energy”. 
In four years’ time, the UK is forecast to have 1m electric vehicles on the road. What happens when everyone gets home and plugs their cars in at 5pm – coinciding with the peak time for electricity in the UK? The demand placed on the grid would be 7GW, equivalent to 10 conventional power stations firing up, the audience heard. 
 
Fiona Howarth, CEO of Octopus electric vehicles, said she sees this situation as an opportunity as well as a challenge. Her firm has partnered up with smart charging company mienergi on a project to store a car’s energy and move it to different times of the day. “We can put in place for you at home now a smart charger that will automatically start charging your car at 12.30am which is when our cheap tariff kicks in. The great thing there is that now you’ve shifted that demand on the network.”

 

 
The panel agreed solutions and Innovation would not come from individual companies, but from “collaboration and convergence”. Stephen highlighted a storage project OVO was doing with Nissan Leaf, saying: “Lots of companies are making incremental change, but the really exciting stuff is there when they join forces”.

Fiona said that she and the other panellists had invested heavily in technology in order to be able to develop and evolve quickly. “I think that’s really what differentiates a number of the independents that are coming out – bringing skills and expertise from other parts of other industries into the energy sector to enable us to unlock a lot of that value for customers”.