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Insight Conversation: Steve Cunningham, geo

geo has been working in the smart energy space for around 14 years, installing devices that help people understand how they use energy in their homes. The recent Core4Grid trial, funded by the UK's Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, found that using geo devices alongside other smart technologies could help households cut energy bills in half and reduce carbon footprint by 14%. geo CEO Steve Cunningham spoke with S&P Global Platts Power Analyst Tom Schumacher about the future of the energy retail space and getting everyone on board with energy transition.

How does geo's business align with the UK's net-zero aspirations?

The first part of our journey has been all about providing information to people to help them save energy seamlessly without trying and without even having to think about it.

Steve Cunningham
Steve Cunningham

Most of our devices will roll out with smart metering programs. 5.5 million devices, which display home energy consumption and help people understand how they're using energy so they can make better informed choices, have been installed to date in the Nordics, the Netherlands, but predominantly in the UK.

In the UK, it's mandated that a display be installed alongside a smart meter and while that's not true for other markets, there is support for the integrated use of the technologies in the other countries we're active in. In other markets, like Germany and the US, there are pools of utilities, local governments and regulators that are looking to provide consumers with more information around this smart meter rollout and as well as create a benefit for the utility, also help consumers make some informed choices around their energy use.

In the territories we're looking at, there'll be 55 million smart meters deployed over the next five years so we're looking at that as 55 million opportunities to deliver that capability to homeowners.

For most people, the only way they'll ever notice we're doing our job is when their bills go down.

The results of the Core4Grid trial shows that with the right technology, you can cut a typical bill in half. That's fantastic but we recognize that not everybody will be able to get to the point where they can put all that technology, including batteries, solar panels and EVs, into their home. If we can deliver 20%-25% savings on a bill by doing things for a consumer that don't require any active thought, like having their white goods operate and their EV charge during lower priced periods, and do that conveniently, then we're overcoming that.

If we can deliver those kinds of savings for the 80% of the population that have gas powered heating, then that has a massive effect on how the whole country uses energy. It means that we take more of the fossil fuel-based baseload out of the market and we can make more use of renewable energy. In turn, we get better value out of renewables, reducing the overall cost of supplying energy.

How do you envisage the future of the energy retail market on the path to the net-zero world?

The energy retail industry is going through a transformation as utilities, whose core business has been providing energy and charging for it, are now reducing the amount of their core product.

We'll see a transition to providing energy management or energy as a service, rather than energy as a commodity. For instance, energy retailers might move to the point where they sell several washing machine or dishwasher loads worth of capability instead of the electricity.

That retailer is then able to understand how well that white good performs and then they'll know when the most cost and carbon effective time is to use it in their wholesale buying curve.

The tightrope is being able to do that in a way that means something to people who largely don't enjoy paying for energy. If it's difficult to save energy and take part in the transition, people just won't do it.

Core4Grid is proof that you can get to that 50% saving but with some smart white goods, or smart plugs, you can save 20%-25% today.

When people achieve those basic levels of savings and get to a point where they'd happily make the 50% saving, we believe that battery technology will be at a point where it's accessible enough that either the individual will decide to make that investment, or they'll be able to get it as a rented package from a retailer, while vehicle-to-grid charging will be commonplace for the EV's on the market.

How do you see competition developing in the home energy optimization space?

It's clear that a lot of the tech giants want to be a part of the energy space, which isn't surprising given a lot of their kit consumes a lot of energy.

It's practical for those companies to reduce the impacts of their core offering especially when many new technologies, such as Bitcoin and blockchain, require a huge amount of computing power.

But it's the energy companies that supply us with electrons, invest in big renewable plants and maintain the energy grid to make sure that we get power at home.

What we'll end up with is a symbiosis between these tech and energy companies as energy becomes more technical. It's much harder to keep a grid stable when it has a lot of intermittent renewable supply and you're relying on being able to shift load to maintain grid stability.

All these require technical resources, which is a question of how flexibility management at different scales can stabilize the grid and make the best of renewables. Renewables without flexibility management will only be partially successful. If you have to constantly deploy grid scale storage to manage grid scale renewables, you're chasing your tail.

What would be more effective is if we can adapt the way that the edge of the grid absorbs that power—either take more of it when the power is freely available or take less of it when it's constrained.

How significant do you see smart domestic energy consumption in integrating renewable energies to the grid?

We need to consider the grid as lots of microgrids that exist as neighbors to one another and understand how each microgrid is working in and of itself and as part of the grid.

Building an ecosystem of microgrids that can keep itself stable within the limits of what its components can physically cope with and how the grid is asking it to behave, is the most cost-effective way to reinforce the grid.

There will inevitably be need for grid scale storage, but storage doesn't need to be tied up into big, fixed plants that are resource intensive. To put the capability of residential flexibility into context, over the next four years we will roll out 6 to 10 million of our devices in the UK alone. These devices will each be capable of controlling and shifting five primary shiftable loads—things like EVs, hot water heating, washing machines, refrigeration. Aggregated, we'll be able to shift for critical periods two average UK power stations worth of load.

When you can do that during peak periods, you can reduce and avoid the need to reinforce the grid on the storage end.

What barriers need to be overcome to improve the uptake of smart technologies? What developments can aid the update?

In the UK, the Government has tried to incentivize people to take up energy saving measures and make their homes more efficient over the last 50 years, but those initiatives have not been very well delivered.

On top of that, energy companies haven't had the best press, so the industry has a lot of ground to make up for people to trust it to be delivering for the right reasons.

Behind the scenes it's done a ton of work on the transition. The UK's renewable energy program is one of the best in the world and the smart metering program is one of the most advanced. It's a powerful initiative that delivers real-time information to utilities, customers, and anybody in the energy space who's interested, on electricity production and consumption.

The problem is that we've done nothing with that information so far. If there's a criticism of the rollout so far, it's that the industry hasn't done enough—quickly enough—to realise that just showing consumers a better bill backed by a bit more information isn't that exciting. They didn't want the bill in the first place so showing them a slightly better version doesn't make them much happier.

That's the mission we're on—we must do more with this information and not just in the UK.

It's a shame that we haven't done more with it but we're only halfway through the roll out. We have half of it to make it better.

We also have to help households act on the information instead of giving them the information and saying, "over to you." We have to give people proactive control to make saving energy and doing something for the planet something worthwhile, exciting and something that doesn't have a downside.

That's critical. If it has a downside then people won't budge. If I can afford my energy bill today, and someone says I can reduce your bills, but you have to do this, most people won't budge.

But if you can take x amount of your bill for no effort and actually make your heating system work better, and show people that energy transition is impacting them in a positive way, then people will do it.

That's how we'll build trust, not just with the part of the population that is already engaged, but with the whole of the country who we need alongside us on this journey.