It’s time to celebrate Australian technology innovation for smart energy solutions, and embrace them too

Image of Australian flag to illustrate blog post

Energy is in crisis, with prices soaring, supply compromised and just this week the national electricity market suspended. There’s never been a better time for consumers to take greater control, and homegrown Australian technologies are ready to support them.

We all know we’re living in extraordinary times for the energy sector.

Midweek saw AEMO, the energy system and market operator, urgently suspend the East Coast market it operates – an unprecedented intervention for the whole National Electricity Market. On the evening news the NSW Treasurer and Energy Minister Matt Kean, a champion of renewables, publicly urged households to help dial back the winter evening peak to reduce the threat of rolling blackouts.

Household and business electricity consumers, however, can be excused for feeling powerless as global market forces run rampant.

The thing is, they shouldn’t be so powerless. We already have great Australian technologies that can help consumers of energy to reduce their demand and balance their supply.

But the operating environment for these deployments just hasn’t been supportive enough, and the Australian energy regulatory system has struggled to keep up. 

So most households and small businesses remain ill-equipped to micro-manage their electricity, because they lack the smart tools and data-driven software solutions that can empower them to be part of wider system solutions.

Utility meters, whether digital or technologically-ancient analogue, are designed first and foremost to bill customers, hopefully accurately. But the data system they feed does little if anything to support energy saving and load shifting behaviours.

How good would it be if technology could help out?

There is, however, a ray of light for people who want to take greater control of their own energy destinies.

Off the back of its global leadership in the rooftop solar space, Australia is home to a growing cohort of excellent digital energy technology solutions.

It won’t surprise anyone that I include Wattwatchers Digital Energy, the scale-up company that I lead, in this cohort. But it extends much further, to our business-to-business customers and to our competitors (who not infrequently are our customers as well).

Right now we have a nation of 25 million-plus people, most of whom are looking at a failed market, ruinous price fluctuations and increases, and bugger all they can do about it.

But not everyone. Over three million Australian households have rooftop solar, generating clean energy on their own premises, which at least partly insulates them from the current market chaos.

Especially the relatively small fraction of solar homes that also have smart energy monitoring, independent of the big energy retailers that still dominate supply in the marketplace. These include digital solutions developed by Australian innovation companies like pioneering PV performance player Solar Analytics, Clipsal Solar with its purpose-developed home energy management app, Australian-based UK market entrant Simble Group, and electric vehicle charging early-mover Evie Networks.

These four companies all use Wattwatchers inside their solutions to varying degrees. But as an Australian, I am proud too of technology competitors and fellow travellers like Newcastle-based SwitchDin, Melbourne-based Edge Electrons, and breakthrough players in the electric vehicle space, like Brisbane-based Tritium and Melbourne-based Jetcharge.

In fact, there are too many to name them all here. But you get the pattern, and in my view it’s a very welcome outcome that a critical mass of innovators have survived through the long, lean tech startup years, and are ready to go when the proverbial is hitting the fan.

Yes there’s been some support, but much more is needed 

To give credit where it’s due, their survival and growing success often has been assisted by a modest level of farsighted government support, especially through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), as well as programs instigated by more progressive state, territory and local governments.

But the CEFC and ARENA are the clear exceptions at the national level, and you have to go back six prime ministers from today to find their beneficial origins in the early 2010s. They’ve done great work, but much more is needed to transform the energy sector at full speed.

Without doubt, the energy supply and price crises we’re experiencing now, in the early 2020s, show the mainstream energy industry and its regulators have largely been asleep at the wheel when it comes to driving the electricity system into the 21st century, especially on the customer side.

The good news, however, is that the emerging technology ecosystem which can help consumers in very targeted ways has been moving along relentlessly. And it’s been doing this in spite of being routinely ignored or sidelined by big energy companies, and frequently in the face of overt government inaction and political intransigence as well.

‘Technology not taxes’ was just a three-word political slogan and an insult to our intelligence, totally devaluing the contribution that technology innovation can make to accelerating the vast undertaking that the energy transition represents.

Australian smart energy technology innovation in many ways is the quiet achiever. It’s kept chugging along, through a decade of energy and carbon policy failure at the national level, and now it needs to be celebrated, and seized on. 

Don’t miss the opportunities presented by electrification

There’s a here-and-now opportunity for the new federal government to further recognise and leverage Australian ingenuity, perhaps through a future energy solutions national summit and activation strategy, and definitely by supporting our innovators to showcase their solutions on a global stage.

While Australia’s extraordinary take up of rooftop solar is the foundation of many of these solutions, we’ve nonetheless missed the opportunity to make small-scale solar even smarter from the start; and now we are doing the same thing with ‘dumb charging’ for electric vehicles, which have finally reached a long-awaited tipping point, and will proliferate over the next decade-plus, meaning household electricity consumption will double or even triple. 

Data, always available communications, common standards and timeliness (real-time) are key elements to drive integration and interoperability. And consumers have to be involved, because what the industry calls distributed energy resources (DERs) are actually on their rooftops, in their garages, and are heating and cooling their homes. 

Utility-dominated smart meter deployment, an industry world I once inhabited for over a decade, does not suit the behind-the-meter complexities of monitoring and remote control for the DER era). Rather, it’s outdated foreign technology still looking for a home beyond basic billing, while a suite of amazing Australian-built technologies are purpose-built for this fast-evolving space.

The kind of so-called smart meters Australia is still struggling to deploy nationally, with the exception of Victoria where they were mandated, are already obsolete in technology terms. And unlike with meters for billing, which the industry wants to get paid by end customers, we need to get over notions that all consumers are equal in the new energy era (they aren’t and they increasingly won’t be).

We need the right mix of carrot and stick

There need to be clear incentive-based and regulatory drivers to compel or entice action, requiring large electricity users who can afford it to pay their own way and use the technologies already available to them; while wrapping technology-enabled support around low income high volume users who simply can’t afford to buy into the clean energy future, but risk being the biggest losers in a failed marketplace.

Practical measures include requiring smart energy monitoring and key load control in new-build homes, making switchboards smart from day one, and treating them as crucial infrastructure for the big energy makeover. In established homes, meanwhile, monitoring and control technologies should be required wherever significant new customer energy solutions are being installed (such as solar generation, battery storage, EV charging, and heavy loads like aircon, electric hot water and pool pumps). 

Social, community and low-income housing must be priority areas for greater attention.

On the bright side, there’s suddenly growing recognition that accelerating the energy transition is good economics as well as being good for the environment, and that the broad socio-economic benefits of technology-enabled electrification can extend right down to individual households and small businesses.

In typical Australian style, our culture of innovation is doing it well and frequently we’re doing it together, taking much-needed early steps towards the kind of technology integration, interoperability and data sharing that will underpin an energy future where electricity becomes abundant, clean, reliable and, ultimately, affordable for all.

We need to ensure that all our Australian retailers and energy service companies back this Australian ecosystem, and embed customers in the design and delivery of compatible solutions. Over nearly two decades in the energy technology space, I’ve had the chance to see most of what the world has to offer. I remain absolutely confident that our homegrown solutions are simply best in class, and right for the times.

Gavin Dietz is Chief Executive Officer of Sydney-based Wattwatchers, which enables an expanding suite of in-house and third-party partner apps, platforms and solutions for the once-in-a-century energy transition challenges now being faced both here in Australia, and globally.