Our relationship with power is changing in two simultaneous yet contradictory ways: electric devices are becoming integral in more and more of our daily life; and we are becoming more and more conscious of the effect our energy use – including fossil fuels – is having on the planet.
For Mercury, which has recently rebranded after bringing together Mercury Energy and Mighty River Power, this has inspired a new effort to both reacquaint its customers with the wonders of electricity, and help them get more value from their energy use, in and out of the home. “We often take electricity for granted,” says Mercury’s chief marketing officer, Julia Jack. “But everything is connected with electricity. Everything that you are doing on your phone, online, it all has electricity as the ‘connective tissue’. That’s why part of our story is helping customers to understand just how wonderful energy actually is.”
One of the ways Mercury is doing this is by promoting e-bikes, and partnering with Bike Barn and SmartMotion to offer its customers subsidies of up to $500 on electric bikes – hill flattening and traffic defying thanks to a boost from electricity. It’s the perfect symbol for Mercury’s renewable energy and an example of the biggest way we can all, individually, reduce our energy use: transport.
“The e-bike is about telling people that energy is a wonderful thing and there's new and innovative and unique things happening all the time,” she says. "For us, it’s not just about selling people kilowatts of electricity, but actually showing people what they can do with that energy, offering them something quite personal and inspiring.
Electric bikes address a lot of the issues people really care about: traffic congestion, costly parking fees in our cities, getting out-and-about, staying fit and healthy enjoying new cycleways. The great thing about e-bikes are you don't have to be a super-fit or super-experienced cyclist. They’re unlocking a whole new world to a new group of cyclists.
“That's what I like about mine. I used to be pretty nervous about getting out and cycling in the traffic. Now, with the cycleways and the power of the electric bike, I don't feel like I'm going to get stuck somewhere, run out of energy and be unable to get back home – with the touch of a button I’m an Olympic cyclist….almost.”
Jack says e-bikes are growing in popularity worldwide – revitalising cycling and generating millions of new bike sales globally. They are a perfect appetiser to electric cars, which currently make up only 1,500 or so of New Zealand’s three million private cars. “Electric bikes are another chapter in the electrification of transport and something that's more accessible to more people right now. The average car is about 14 years old, so people don't change their cars that often, but you might be more inclined to get out there and get on an electric bike.”
But, even when all our cars are electric, they’ll still need electricity. There’s a cynical narrative out there that the production of electricity required to power electric vehicles is not different from the exhaust coming out of a combustion engine. This may be true in some parts of the world, but not the case in New Zealand, where 80 percent of our electricity (and 100 percent of Mercury’s energy) is generated from renewable resources, including hydro, geothermal and wind. It’s amazing to learn that the UK, France, Australia, Japan and the US are all below 20 percent renewable in their electricity supplies.
“More and more people are starting to understand that it's a real competitive advantage for New Zealand, getting away from that dependence on oil and fossil fuels is a huge thing for the country and it's starting to become a bigger thing for individuals as well. When you look past our 80 percent renewable electricity, to our entire energy footprint, factoring in liquid fuels like petrol and diesel and all the rest of it, you're actually looking at only 40 percent of this country’s total energy being renewable. So the electrification of transport is vital to us in addressing climate change, reducing localised pollution and getting completely away from our dependence on fossil fuels.”
Mercury is putting its money where its mouth is, and is well down the track with replacing 70 percent of its fleet (all the vehicles it practically can) with electric plug-in vehicles by 2018. “You've got to lead by example,” she says. “We can't be saying to people, ‘Yeah, get an electric vehicle. Reduce your carbon footprint,’ if we're all still driving around on imported fossil fuels.”
Jack says that Mercury has seen its customers’ attitudes towards energy changing in the last few years. Where people were once primarily concerned with saving power to reduce costs, now they are equally concerned with getting value of out of their electricity and reducing their environmental impact. “They get really interested in electric vehicles when you tell them that running costs are the equivalent of 30 cents per litre, compared with petrol. A Nissan LEAF can drive from Auckland to Hamilton on $3 of electricity!”
“It's about giving people freedom,” she says. “Whether it's electric vehicles, solar or smart energy systems, this is about giving people that choice of how they get and use their energy. For a long time, it was just about how much it cost. 'What can I switch off so it's not going to cost me as much?' Now I think that conversation's moving a little bit more to, 'How sustainable is it and what really has the biggest impact?'
“And, for Mercury, it means supporting people to do that. We're involved in solar, we're involved in e-transport, we're leaders in renewable generation. It’s about taking people on that journey, helping them to understand what a huge asset it is – a global competitive advantage for our tourism and trade brands –and introducing them to new innovations from e-bikes and electric vehicles to home automation, smart security systems, all the things we can do, to make our lives better, more wonderful.”
So what’s in our energy future? Jack says there’s more than enough consented renewable generation ready to be built, which could handle our entire country switching to electric vehicles. That would create jobs in the regions and cut billions of dollars from New Zealand’s imports of fossil fuel. We’ll also see more choice in tailored solutions for individual consumers who may want to generate their own power and have the option of driving on it, or being part of a community that shares surplus electricity and exports some to back to the Grid. This is about freedom and flexibility – and it’s only going to get easier with advancing technology.
“New Zealand’s mainstay, hydro that makes up about 60 percent of all our electricity, will still be the foundation of our renewable energy. For all the talk at the moment about batteries and storage, the hydro lakes are the biggest batteries we've got or we're ever likely to have. They flex up and down, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, in real-time response to the demand for electricity. So, from New Zealand's point of view, that's going to continue to be the best, cheapest and most environmentally-friendly energy storage with an incredibly efficient transmission system for moving electricity from one end of the county to the other.
The future will see even more freedom to choose how we generate and use our renewable energy to deliver more wonderful things for individuals and for our country.”