This was the question we tried to solve with an eclectic group of companies at a workshop we held together with BRG on the 26th of March.
The concept of the workshop was to gather representatives from a range of industries to discuss the energy industry and to develop concrete suggestions of products or services that could be developed with the energy data that Energimolnet is making accessible.
Before we describe the workshop though I think we need to answer why we think we need engaging tools and services. We outlined two reasons in the workshop. The first is that we’re tired of energy being boring! We work in an industry where the perception is that not much changed between 1900 and 2000! We maintain that there is no reason that energy awareness needs to be boring. That is just the perception we’ve all developed.
There is of course another reason, and that is that we believe that user engagement and efficiency will drive changes to energy consumption behaviour. This will lead to consumers who are more aware of their impact on the society’s energy consumption and, hopefully, reduced or improved consumption habits.
Inside and outside the Energy Data Fortress
Of course, Energimolnet might provide the data but someone needs to make these engaging products and services and that is why we gathered this group. The workshop had representatives from Swedish distribution companies, IT consultants, companies making energy smart products today and companies that are aiming to in the future. We don’t believe that any single industry, especially the energy industry, will be able to develop all of the engaging tools we need. So when we planned the workshop we knew we had to mix people from inside and outside what we call the Energy Data Fortress. The fortress only contains energy companies and their current system providers (large IT firms) so it’s quite easy to find companies that are stuck outside.
Problems problems problems
As our aim was to develop concrete product or service suggestions the first thing we had to do was identify problems to be solved. The workshop had no difficulty in generating 10s of problems that, in some way or another, relate to energy data. Some examples of the problems identified:
- How can energy companies be incentivised to make data available?
- What happens when electric cars are more common and everyone starts rapid-charging when they get home? (high power demands)
- How do we differentiate between the consumption of different family members?
- How do we differentiate between the consumption of different appliances?
- Who can handle the data that distribution companies need to predict/respond to changes in usage?
- How do you engage with customers when many of them don’t want to interact with their energy company?
- How do you know if your consumption is appropriate? How does it compare to your neighbours?
Problems alone aren’t very interesting so then the group worked at coming up with different solutions. The solutions ranged from smart appliances to new types of contracts with energy companies.
Services which cut-costs for everyone
One of the problems identified was that energy companies struggle to justify their work in opening up energy data now. It seems like a positive thing for a company to do but what are the financial rewards for their work? How can customers, developers and energy companies all benefit? We were very interested to see this problem identified in the workshop as it’s one we’ve heard quite regularly in our conversation with the industry. New products and services are generally seen as costs to the distribution companies, not opportunities to reduce costs. The key is obviously to create a product that reduces costs for the energy company at the same time as reducing consumer costs or increasing consumer engagement. One of the solutions proposed was a service which analysed consumption habits and weather data and then predicted any peaks in consumption. These are easy enough to anticipate as forecasts of snow and low temperatures are good indicators of high load. On predicting such a consumption peak the service could push messages out to subscribers to a distribution company warning them that prices will be high and that they should aim to minimise or shift their usage. Of course if the peak is then reduced the distribution company saves money over time as they don’t need to invest so much in new infrastructure. In this way the grid company’s costs for initially opening up the data are offset by the savings in their network.
During the Workshop we didn’t want to advertise ourselves too much but we have spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. That is why Energimolnet offers a customer portal (“mina sidor”) to view the consumption data we store and doesn’t just make data accessible in an API. The concept was that to encourage energy companies to engage with Energimolnet we would need to offer something that they paid for today. So we offer the companies a customer portal, almost for free. Of course they get the benefit of opening up the data in that, like mushrooms in autumn, products will be developed for their customers without any effort from the energy company.
Combine these two ideas together and you get energy companies receiving customer portal pages for free, their customers receiving products and services that they would never have received otherwise and even the potential for the energy company to reduce their own costs. This is exactly the kind of result we were hoping for from the day!
The Smart and achievable washing machine
We here a lot about smart appliances and even The Internet of Things in the media but it’s always “appliances of the future” that require some vital piece of equipment that actually very few houses have. The typical examples of this are smart appliances that turn off/down when power usage in a household is high. This is a great concept but requires some device to measure power usage and then make that data available in an open format to all of one’s appliances. This device doesn’t exist yet and is still years off according to the energy companies we trust. However, a concept of a smart washing machine was developed yesterday that didn’t require anything more than an internet connection. With an internet connection the device could compare the price of washing now versus the price of washing in an hour or two, it could sense if it wasn’t full and then determine how much a user could save if they waited until it was full, it could also suggest the best time to wash to even the household’s electricity load and thus avoid any high-power usage fees.
New energy contracts
Our energy company participants noted during the day that not everyone cares about their consumption, or at least not everyone cares about all of their consumption. For instance, I might care a great deal about our office’s consumption as we’ve got a large space with lots of computers and lighting but I don’t care about the consumption in my apartment as much because I know it’s tiny, I’m rarely home and I don’t own any high consuming appliances. How can an energy company know what level engagement they should aim to have with each customer? This lead to the idea that an energy company could develop plans where you select your level of engagement. For most customers all they need to know about is if their consumption is “all clear” and if not there needs to be some subsequent investigation. However, some customers are already interested in saving money and electricity and want to be engaged. These customers could be seen as a valuable resource where they provide feedback on the tools created, they provide an initial market of “early adopters” as they’re called in the product development world that can help companies that want to develop products and services. What an energy company should recognise is that they’re not the typical customer and giving them the same information as an uninterested consumer will not make either happy. Companies should recognise that, at least for the moment, there are levels of interest.
How do the tools become interesting?
A great point brought up during the meeting was that the RunKeeper app has made running times interesting and social. If you asked someone 20 yeas ago if the time it took them to run around the block was interesting they probably would have laughed. There are two points here, one is that competition can increase engagement to a level financial incentives would never reach. For instance, even if gasoline was twice as expensive as now people wouldn’t be sharing their car’s consumption on Facebook, it takes something more than just financial rewards to increase engagement. The other is that boring things can almost always be made interesting with the right angle and it’s everyone’s job to work out what that angle is.
Were we successful?
We left the workshop with some terrific solutions, some of which we’ve described here but all of which brought something new and interesting to the energy product world.
However, it is important to reflect on the fact that Energimolnet’s entire purpose is to make it easier for everyone to build products and services. We are focussing on opening up this data and making it accessible in the belief that the rest of the world has better product ideas than us, has better concepts than our workshop participants, and can see markets none of us would have anticipated. We were around 20 people gathered in Göteborg, Energimolnet will make it possible for the rest of the world to try solving these problems.
Thanks to our participants:
thanks also to Tillväxtverket, from which we received some financial support to hold the workshop.