US smart grid technology mission - the times, they are a changin’

A team from Our Energy, an early stage start-up venture, headed to America on a mission to learn about smart grid technology. This is what they learned.

Our Energy, an early stage start-up venture, is proud and privileged to have participated in the smart grid technology mission led by Callaghan Innovation to the United States from 5-16 September. Of the 12 entities represented on the mission, we were easily the youngest, having only been incorporated in November 2015 and currently pre-revenue. So, it was humbling to be included in a group selected for the purpose of showcasing New Zealand’s ‘smart grid’ innovative potential. 

It’s fair to say that we had some doubts before going ahead with our participation in the mission. We’re grateful for the funding assistance from Callaghan Innovation, but compared to other entities on the mission, it was a substantial investment of scarce time and resources for us regardless. While the US was on our radar, the opportunity to make an in-market visit at this stage of our venture’s life came earlier than expected - the mission was perhaps an early test of a ‘global from day one’ mindset.

The good news is that any doubts about the value of the mission for us were quickly quashed. Our participation is already paying apparent dividends for us - we’ve experienced an uptick in stakeholder interest, including from potential investors, both here in NZ and from the US. This has given us an important confidence boost that there is abundant opportunity for us to tailor our solutions for both New Zealand and a key potential overseas market.

Minneapolis

First stop on the mission was Minneapolis where we attended the North America Innovative Smart Grid Technologies conference. The conference really brought home to us the abundant opportunity that exists for those with a vision of an increasingly distributed and ‘democratised’ electric grid. Digital technologies along with rapidly falling costs for distributed energy resources such as solar PV and batteries are perhaps bringing about the system that Edison actually foresaw all  those years ago. New business and organisational models are going to be needed to support this transition though. Our Energy wants to be an agent of change in this space, in particular by encouraging 'transactive energy’ solutions within communities.

Boston

The mission then headed east to Boston for a visit to the MIT Energy Initiative where we learnt about its 'Utility of the Future' project. While there are some signs of change emerging, the future has not been prepared to wait for utilities or the project to end. 

Mission participants at MIT in Boston.

Also in Boston, we visited EnerNOC, a company focused on providing 'demand response' services, particularly to commercial and industrial customers. Put simply, demand response is about seeking to make adjustments in overall consumption of electricity from a grid to better match available supply. This becomes an ever more critical role in a world with substantially increased distributed energy resources. And, given access to the right business models, we think there’s a clear opportunity for communities to begin playing in this space as well.

New York

We started the New York leg of the the mission with a visit to the New York State Smart Grid Consortium. The Consortium told us about its ongoing promotion of a transparent future electricity system for NYC that offers customers both locational and time of use views of costs. It also has a role in encouraging enhanced customer experiences through new technological approaches and innovative competitive offerings such as digital marketplaces.

We then visited Con Edison, New York's major electric utility company that presides over an asset base that is equivalent in value to almost 20% of New Zealand's GDP. We learnt about its push towards more community engagement, better use of innovation and technology, and offering more value and choice as part of adapting to a future where customer relationships are becoming more crucial than ever before.

A tour of the Brooklyn Microgrid exposed us to an innovative project bringing the physical and virtual 'grid edge' to the ultra-urban environment of Brooklyn, New York City. We got to meet some of the local residents involved in the first transactions of locally generated energy using blockchain technology and hear about their experiences.

We wrapped up in New York by dropping into Urban Future Lab. The 'Lab' plays a key role in NYC's drive to become a global hub for smart cities, smart grid and clean energy innovations.

All in all, plenty of reasons to suggest that Our Energy should return to NYC before too long!

Washington DC

In Washington DC, our last stop on the mission, we toured the smart grid research facilities of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which has a key role in ensuring the right systems are in place for the 21st century electric grid that is fast arriving. Current research includes aiming to deliver value to utilities, regulators and policy makers through better understanding of how 'transactive energy' can meet today's grid challenges. The potential to access and contribute to NIST’s research activities is an opportunity that we intend to explore as a way of supporting our growth aspirations. 

Overall value of the mission

Our participation has enabled us to establish relationships with the other NZ organisations and entities represented on the mission. The potential value of building these links early in our venture’s life cannot be underestimated. It was a particularly efficient way to broaden our networks, and have our proposition tested and validated by a variety of people with a deep knowledge of the energy sector. We even learned about some other potential collaborative opportunities on our doorstep that we had been previously unaware of.

As many founders of NZ start-ups with global aspirations will know, a big challenge can be to get a foot in the door with key decision makers in offshore organisations. Our participation in this mission enabled us to hold several ‘elevator’ discussions with senior people at large US utilities that could be our potential customers. We’d have struggled to find our way through US corporate mazes from here in NZ. Suddenly, we have direct access to key people in a really important market who have expressed openness to holding further discussions with us and keeping in touch about our progress.

A final observation we’d like to make, completely unrelated to the overall value of the mission itself, is that all participants in the mission were male and mostly of NZ European / Pakeha descent. We reckon this presents a challenge for ‘smart grid’ industry participants, including ourselves. Smart grid innovations can unlock value for society in numerous ways, and we need diversity of thought and representation to identify and capitalise on all the opportunities. The onus is on us all to meet this challenge.