Power outages caused by extreme weather events are becoming a more frequent reality as the climate crisis deepens. Joe Delaney, Industry Strategy Director, Energy & Utilities at Salesforce, argues that increased customer engagement will allow Australian and New Zealand’s electricity networks to enable a more resilient energy system.

 

State-wide power crises have the potential to affect millions of people and lead to serious economic losses. This was the reality that the US state of Texas faced in February 2021. When three severe winter storms swept across the state, the resulting power outage had an impact on the lives of ten million people, and led to an estimated economic loss of $130 billion USD. The Texas crisis occured only months after the state of California saw widespread blackouts during an intense August heatwave and wildfires. And throughout 2021, extreme weather events have continued to test the resilience of power grids across the Northern Hemisphere.

Today, the Australian energy industry is preparing to meet the increasing threat of power disruptions caused by the climate crisis. With the 2021 International Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report warning extreme weather events are predicted to increase in frequency – Australia has already warmed 1.4 degrees since 1910 – local energy networks are focused on measures to mitigate future disruption. 

In his presentation to Enlit Australia on 28 July, former Commissioner of the Texas Public Utility Commission Karl Rábago made his message clear to the energy industry: we have to engage the customer.

How Australia’s energy industry is changing

The 2020 Consumer Engagement Report from Energy Networks Australia contends that, “the mass-migration of more than two million households into the world of not just buying electricity but generating it has fundamentally changed the operating environment for network businesses.” 

The emerging energy “prosumer” is both a consumer and producer of electricity, engaged in a dynamic, two-way relationship with the grid. With a growing network of Distributed Energy Resources (DER), including rooftop solar, batteries, electric vehicles (EVs), charging infrastructure, and community microgrids, the way consumers interact with energy retailers, demand aggregators and distribution network operators is transforming.

One in four Australian homes now has rooftop solar, and the country leads the world in photovoltaic capacity on a per capita basis, at almost eight times the worldwide average. This places Australia at the forefront of a new decentralised, customer-centric digital transformation. If Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM) is to support regular occurrences of 100% renewable energy penetration by 2025, it will need greater control and orchestration of these flexible, consumer-owned assets to balance the grid. This control will require a focus on trust and social licence, with network businesses engaging more directly with the consumer (subject to ring-fencing rules).

Setting a new bar for customer engagement and communications

Australia is predicted to feel the effects of the climate crisis more than most countries, and local energy providers need to start considering how they can ensure they are ready to meet the associated challenges. 

Today’s energy consumers increasingly expect real-time engagement with network operators in the event of outages. But they don’t just want to engage during a crisis, installation or scheduled maintenance work. As DER installations increase exponentially and prosumers become involved with new and innovative two-way grid services, so will their interactions with network businesses.

Thanks to digital-native service providers, such as Amazon, Uber, and Hello Fresh, customers now expect seamless, personalised communications, and it’s time for energy suppliers to start building those same skills. To do that they need powerful customer engagement platforms with two-way communication capability to keep up with customer expectations.  

The goals of network operators need to be loftier, with the aim of placing the energy consumer at the centre of their operations. How can they develop a 360-degree view of the consumer? How can this be achieved in a stable, scalable way, while enhancing energy system resilience?

Becoming customer-centric

To become enablers of a resilient, customer-centric energy system, network operators will need to build a best-in-class cloud-native technology stack. This will be essential to support new grid services, omni-channel customer platforms, streamlined connections, integrated field service, and dynamic emergency response management. By developing this capability, and harnessing deep data-driven insights, distribution network businesses will position themselves to accelerate their transformation into Distribution System Operators (DSOs).

This will involve moving away from a purely asset-centric business model and adopting an asset+customer+data centric mindset and culture. Critical to this will be attracting the next generation of digital talent, automating business processes, integrating siloed legacy applications, and facilitating third-party data exchanges across future distributed energy markets.

National Grid – which operates Great Britain’s transmission network – has seen a 400% increase in grid connection requests over the last three years, mainly from renewable generators. They used the Salesforce platform to streamline the process of onboarding new connections through the ConnectNow portal, delivering an end-to-end experience. By establishing a single source of truth, ConnectNow enabled National Grid to develop a scalable, componentised architecture for the portal, which focuses heavily on providing the best digital experience to customers. By reducing complexity and demonstrating faster time-to-value, they are accelerating the decarbonisation of Britain’s power grid and the country’s path to Net Zero emissions. 

Just as National Grid is managing a step change in variable renewable energy connections to the transmission network, distribution network businesses also face ever greater complexity in connection types, including distributed generation, community batteries, EV public charging infrastructure and consumer-owned DER.

Building trust for the future

During the COVID-19 pandemic, customer engagement and transparency has been vital in maintaining consumer trust. Eighty-nine percent of customers say how a company acts during a crisis demonstrates its trustworthiness, and 80% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services. 

Customers have said they want support on every channel, immediate responses, the ability to see all past activities, and personalised recommendations. And while it can be overwhelming for network operators whose engagement with their end users has been limited, it’s a vital step in establishing the trust and social licence necessary to integrate DER and decarbonise the energy system.

Customers and communities are now more important than ever for energy networks, and need to be central to their activities. Distribution network businesses in Australia and New Zealand are aiming to transform into tomorrow’s Distribution System Operators. To do that, it's critical that they have powerful customer engagement platforms, and that those platforms are used to empower consumers and communities as we enter a new energy paradigm. 

 

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