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As the utility industry continues to be disrupted by changing business models and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT and distributed energy resources, the need to ensure these technologies are secure, maximised and innovative is increasing.

Today’s industry is characterised by utilities either adopting, piloting or highlighting plans to implement cutting edge technologies to strengthen grid operations and to prepare for future smart services which consumers are demanding.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 5-2018.  You have access to our digital magazine here. 

But where exactly are these new technologies coming from?

According to Bloomberg, “The latest threat to the dominance of Britain’s six biggest energy suppliers is coming from small technology companies that automatically switch consumers to the cheapest deal.

“A record 5.5 million customers switched electricity supplier last year.”

Are startups the leading innovators in the utility industry?

Despite the impact of startups being felt in the energy transition, the majority of these small companies are failing to fully commercialise their products and services for a number of reasons.

Matt Hunckler, the founder of Powderkeg, a US community of entrepreneurs, said some of the key challenges restraining startups from reaching their full potential include a lack of funding for further product research and development, validation and commercialisation.

Hunckler says startups have limited resources to collaborate with industry stakeholders and to structure and define cultures, clear goals and measurable performance expectations. However, a number of measures have over the past years been developed to address such challenges and these include incubators and startup/stakeholder connection programmes such as the European Utility Week Initiate! platform.

Now in its fourth year, the programme includes the Startup Programme, Young Talent Programme and a Hub Session agenda Startup programme, Young Talent programme and a Hub Session agenda including a multitude of workshops and networking sessions. The networking sessions encourage discussions, opportunities and new ideas to help the industry thrive and grow.

Smart Energy International spoke with Sietske Jacobs, project manager for Initiate!, to understand more about the initiative and the startup industry.

“While European Utility Week was initially covering the majority sectors of Europe’s smart energy industry there wasn’t a place for next-generation technologies.

“We did not have any students and graduates attending,” Jacobs says.

And since the energy industry is transitioning, technology and next generation talent is a necessary consideration. There is a need to develop the industry’s future leaders.

Enter Initiate!

“Under the initiative, we launched the Young Talent programme to ease the transition from an academic to a business environment. The programme encourages knowledge exchange, networking and shows students the challenges within the startup and utility sectors and how they are addressed in real life.”

Initiate! focuses on the new innovation paradigm linking startups with investors, investment, R&D and innovation managers of utilities.

Future of work

The future of work is a platform that encourages young and non-professional utility representatives to talk about what they think the future of work looks like and why they chose to go into the industry.

The industry needs new talent and new ideas to encourage the development of solutions and strategies to bring about change. Programme aspects for 2018 include ‘a day in the life’ and what ‘the industry can learn from the next generation workforce.’

Utility roadmaps to innovation

“This year’s participating startups have been enrolled in what we call Accelerate to Initiate. In this, we have between five and 27 corporates looking for solutions, along with our startups. The programme helps the startups and the corporates get to know each other, evaluate the technologies and if they are happy and reach an agreement, deploy the solutions under pilots.”

Blockchain, energy efficiency, energy user awareness, big data, energy storage, drones and artificial intelligence are just some of the technologies and software solutions the programme is focusing on.

Regional focus

Initiate! caters for startups from all over the world but the majority of the startups over the past years have been those wanting to do business in Europe, with the majority of the startups coming from Germany, the US and Austria.

There are a lot of startup events globally but being hosted aside European Utility Week means these startups have exposure to the 12,000 energy stakeholders exhibiting or visiting the event.

Participating startups this year include Austrian Post, Austria; e-on agile, Germany; Microsoft Austria, Austria; Resalta, Slovenia; Enasco Cleantech Alliance, Hungary and EWF (Energy Web Foundation) exhibiting with a number of blockchain startups.

Manifesto

The Initiate! Manifesto sets out the central focuses for the programme and is updated regularly to reflect the transition and changes in the sector.

“In our manifesto we reflect on the social aspects of the energy transition and examine how the energy transition is being conducted and completed in a fair and just manner for everyone.”

Under the 2018 manifesto, the following initiatives are highlighted:

Decentralised power

Power to the people has taken on an alternative meaning. The desire to implement a decentralised power system is being accomplished and these systems facilitate bottom-up innovation.

The transition to energy democracy is irrevocable, promoting constant innovation and enabling local ownership.

Goodbye gatekeepers, hello internet of energy. There is no longer a world that has clearly defined roles from source to end user. Instead, power will be decentralised, and power will be given to the people.

A transition to fair energy

It is perplexing that we have an abundance of raw-energy that we are currently not utilising. We should actively be sourcing new opportunities, new supplies, and new models to secure free and fair energy for all, delivered straight to our homes.

But what is free and fair energy? If we are being offered energy free of charge, what liberties do we need to relinquish in return? How will energy be distributed in a fair way, who will pay the bill and who owns the data?

In order to move to a society where we can utilise free and fair energy, we as a united society will need to trust in our governing bodies that they have our best interests at heart.

Goodbye oligarchy, hello democracy.

Through fair arbitration and a fair recognition of each other’s rights and duties, this transition will work and leave no one behind.

Let’s explore a new perspective on energy. Abundant, clean, fair and invaluable to society.

Distributed human intelligence Our global value system is rapidly changing. Making money is not the only value around. Societal impact is proportionate in this new economy where decentralised energy systems prevail.

Goodbye bureaucracy, hello autonomy.

This new energy economy is better because it is designed to be restorative, regenerative and renewable. It incorporates the 3 P’s; people, planet and profit. But with system changes we will see power shifts. People and business will have to organize themselves locally allowing for autonomy, fairness and localised decision making. SEI

After reading the Initiate! Manifesto, Michiel Dorresteijn, from Energy21, elaborates on what could be added to it.

The means to produce energy by yourself and to participate in an energy market are becoming available for anyone. Information and data can be obtained and analysed with easy-to-use apps and increasingly (artificial) intelligent algorithms.

At the same time, costs of solar panels, fuel cells and storage systems are plummeting, while the technical performance is being improved. In other words: Energy is democratised.

The Manifesto of Initiate! describes that process spot on. The world of energy is changing rapidly and this new order requires a new economy with new roles and responsibilities. That being said, the next step might prove to be the bigger challenge.

The Manifesto describes the need for something new, but has not yet reached the point of offering an approach on how to solve that. And the initiative is far too valuable and needed (!) if it would restrict itself to formulating the problem.

Customer empowerment needs a market design that enables it If I would leave it with that I would be doing the same: describing a need without offering a way of how to deal with it. In that regard, it may be worthwhile to mention the attempt Energy21 made on this issue last year together with the Dutch grid operator Stedin. Starting off with the basic assumption that there is a need for a new energy system that can accommodate the democratisation of energy production and information, we explored a possible market design that could meet four main prerequisites. The system has to:

  1. lower overall system costs
  2. empower customers
  3. stimulate renewable energy
  4. be scalable

The fourth prerequisite is very important. Scalable means that a system can start on a small scale, but can grow without needing a complete ‘bing bang’ replacement of the existing system. A revolution will only lead to resistance and struggle with vested interests. With the Layered Energy System, we have designed and described a system that can accommodate both the existing and the new energy economy.

In my opinion, the strength of Initiate!’s message will be defined by the remedy for the sore spot that is offered, not only by putting the finger on it. Otherwise, very true observations may become hollow statements. Based on what can be read in the Manifesto so far, I am eagerly and expectantly looking forward to what this initiative will bring.