Energy Innovation Series: Trends and data-driven solutions

June 27, 2022

Grace Young, Chief of Innovation at Wattwatchers explores technology trends and data-driven solutions that are propelling energy management.

Q&A with Grace Young, Chief of Innovation, Wattwatchers

Grace Young is presenting at the EnergyNEXT clean energy event in Sydney on 19 July, 2022. Her topic is Energy Management En Route to Net Zero: Data and the Internet of Things, the Post-Pandemic Reset & the Electrification of Nearly Everything.

In this presentation she’ll be diving into an energy management marketplace in rapid transition—as energy prices surge globally, Net Zero for electricity looms by as early as 2030, the legacy of COVID-19 is resetting work-life balance for millions of Australians, and the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) is accelerating.

Grace will highlight technology trends and data-driven solutions that are propelling energy management integration into new and emerging use cases in proptech, fintech, mobility and more, including emerging opportunities for ‘energy data as a service.’

In the following Q&A, Grace introduces some of the themes and ideas that fall under this wide-ranging umbrella.

Why do people need energy data?

So often when people get a big energy bill, they feel powerless. It’s all seen as a ‘tax’ that just needs to be paid, rather than something they have any agency in changing. Energy companies are not particularly incentivised to change this, which is probably a big reason as to why we still see static energy bills issued in arrears, often every three months. With such a lag between using energy and seeing the effect on our bills, it’s little wonder people are left scratching their heads when the bill arrives.

More and more folks are starting to look for alternatives—installing solar, and increasingly batteries, to take back some degree of control. However, getting solar panels installed is only half the battle. Using that solar effectively is critical in making the most of the many thousands of dollars invested.

In both cases—whether someone has solar installed or not—visibility of what’s happening is super helpful in being able to make informed choices. And that visibility can only happen with much richer energy data than is provided by the typical utility billing meter (even the ones they call ‘smart meters’).

But energy data doesn’t help with how you use energy. It also helps with ‘big ticket’ purchases that have an impact on energy in the household.

For example, a friend of mine was looking to install solar and was informed that his pool pump was the most likely cause of high energy bills. Because he had energy monitoring in place (a Wattwatchers device provided through the ARENA-backed My Energy Marketplace program) he knew that heating was the biggest culprit. This changed how the solar installer sized his system to optimise his cost savings.

This same friend also discovered a thermostat for underfloor heating had been adjusted incorrectly, ramping up energy usage. He found out on the day it happened, so was able to correct the problem immediately, avoiding a big bill shock. He has also determined that his hot water service is doing strange things, and is researching alternatives to optimise his solar usage for water heating. All made possible by energy data.

Now, to be clear. This friend of mine is not like me—not some big energy nerd who works in the industry. He’s a music teacher, father of two, who loves a good beer watching the footy, and is worried about climate change. But he has been empowered by the simple fact he has access to the data he needs to make sound decisions, and is saving a lot of money in the process.

How does a Wattwatchers device work?

Our devices are shaped like the small circuit-breakers that slot into typical household and business meter boxes or switch boards. 

Attached to the device are accessories called current transformers (or CTs for short) that wrap around the individual cables for the electricity circuits coming into, or going out of your meter box, and measure the energy flowing through them. 

In a typical home (which is wired in a single-phase configuration), one Wattwatchers device can monitor up to 6 circuits. This includes the main grid connection, tracking both energy coming in (that you purchase from your retailer) and going out (if you have solar or batteries) of your premises. But in addition, we can also track how much total energy your solar system is generating (if applicable), and what portion of that you are self-consuming on-site; and also key energy-consuming appliances and equipment, like electric hot water, air-conditioning units, pool pumps, EV chargers, and general power and lighting circuits.

In commercial and industrial use cases, one device can cover two 3-phase circuits up to 600 amps, which is quite large. We even have a 3000 amp version (the 3RM, which uses larger circumference Rogowski coils to handle such high currents).

The device reads this information and sends it back to our servers over the cellular internet network (the same one your mobile phone uses), or in some cases over a WiFi network—for example, piggy-backing on the home or business WiFi. This data is sent to our servers every 30 seconds (or as often as every 5 seconds) for real-time applications—that is, seeing what’s happening in your premises right now—and also tallied every 5 minutes for historical use.

How can I access my energy data? Are you nationwide?

The energy data from our devices is sent to our servers (hosted in Australia by Amazon Web Services). We store 5 minute data indefinitely, and the 30 second data is available for a month.

For those of you that are technically minded, we make this available via our well-documented API (short for Application Programming Interface).

This is how different apps and services access your data, to provide you the benefits that having this data available can provide. Some of these are our own apps, like the MyEnergy app for iPhone and Android phones. But many, many more are provided by third-parties—the Use Cases section of our website contains a range of third-party provider examples. 

Often we’re invisible to the end user, powering someone else’s solution. All this can be done anywhere in Australia, and internationally too. One of the great things about electricity is that it’s broadly the same everywhere.

So, there’s a lot more to a Wattwatchers energy monitor than just the device itself!

What things can you track, apart from usage? 

Total usage is a good ‘broad brush-stroke’ indicator for calculating cost, emissions and things like that. But if you have solar, for example, then you also want to know how much of your own generation you are consuming (i.e. on-site self-consumption), and how much that is saving you, whether that be in dollars or carbon emissions.

One of the issues with the so-called ‘smart meters’ used by energy companies (for billing) is that they only provide visibility on two things: the amount you use from the grid, and the amount of solar you send to the grid, if you have solar panels. And this information is usually not available to you at the time it’s being used—often at least 24 hours old, if not more. This is a very limited view that provides very little help to a householder or business owner trying to work out the best way to reduce energy usage.

As mentioned earlier, what is much more helpful is to be able to see usage across the individual circuits, getting real-time alerts for things that don’t ‘look’ right (like the elevated energy consumption my friend discovered in his home).

With real time data, you can make immediate decisions like turning high-energy use equipment on or off, or up and down, as well as being able to take longer-term approaches like energy efficiency and demand management. Wattwatchers devices also collect power quality data, including voltage, which can have a big impact on people’s expensive electronics and appliances if it’s fluctuating too high or low.

What sort of insights can you get from the data? 

There are so many things you can learn, if you want to, from your energy data. Energy data geeks will tell you it can be quite the rabbit hole, once your curiosity is piqued and you start looking into it!

But most of us aren’t energy geeks, and so it’s important to get tools that can do a lot of the data analytics heavy lifting for you, so you’re not having to spend hours and hours poring over spreadsheets and the like to make sense of it all.

Patterns of usage are important. So are seasonal changes. Time-of-use can be vital, especially for businesses that face peak demand caps and penalty payments for exceeding limits. 

But granular, real-time data can reveal a lot more, including the performance and operational well-being of assets like solar systems, and even supporting fault detection and predictive analytics in industry use cases. 

And energy data can be used throughout the process, from finding what you might change through to verifying whether those changes had the impact you expected.

For example, one of our customers specialising in energy saving for data centres uses Wattwatchers data to:

  1. Establish a consumption baseline for cooling units, the main electricity consumers at such sites, 
  2. Design their smart interventions, 
  3. Prove the savings outcomes they promised have been delivered, and 
  4. Provide ongoing monitoring of results over time, staying connected with their customers pending licence renewal negotiation. 

In the Internet of Things (IoT) era for energy, lots of real-time data is a basic prerequisite. 

How can energy data be used to manage and report on carbon impacts?

Our data is often used by householders and businesses to make important energy management decisions, including optimising time of use, or to identify and verify savings, and also for sustainability reporting and ratings.

When it comes to climate impacts from carbon emissions, electricity is one of the biggest ticket items for many homes and enterprises. So whether you’re just wanting your household to do their bit for a brighter future, or a business that is required to report on this for regulatory reasons, or by larger businesses you supply to, knowing what’s happening with energy in your premises is really important.

It’s not just how much energy you’re using, but also how much of it is coming from different sources, including the coal-heavy grid, or your own solar if you have it, for example. Wattwatchers provides the data for our customers to do exactly that.

It’s pretty easy to take the data provided by Wattwatchers devices to generate the reports you need. Firstly, by taking your baseline measurements to know where you really stand. Then by monitoring for the effects of changes you’ve made.

There are a number of carbon accounting platforms coming to life, but for the moment many are relying on averages to do their calculations. But devices like Wattwatchers, that provide more granular data, can make these calculations more accurate. See, for example, our recent blog post on hourly carbon accounting for the sort of difference this can make. The old adage “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” is as true as ever for carbon accounting, when it comes to electricity use.

But there’s so many more possibilities, not just the immediate benefits for a business or household, but for the system as a whole. For example, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and leading university researchers have been using data from Wattwatchers devices, via one of our oldest customers Solar Analytics, to better understand how solar inverters behave during periods of high voltage variability. This sort of research has proven to be vital in ensuring the stability of the nation’s electricity supply in the age of distributed energy resources (DERs)—a transition led by householders with rooftop solar. 

And this is super-important if we, as a community, want to see more and more renewables powering our electricity grid.

What are some of the more ‘left field’ applications of energy data you’ve seen?

I’ve already mentioned industrial use cases like fault detection and predictive maintenance, drawing on energy data-related ‘signatures’ and ‘patterns’ that can be revealed by granular monitoring. So, this uses our data for much more than just monitoring consumption.

Another example of thinking ‘outside the box’ can be found in using energy data to remotely monitor electricity in a home to provide a ‘protective watch’ over a loved one, across town or perhaps much further away. For example, getting an alert if Nanna doesn’t boil the electric kettle in the morning. Kind of an energy data-enabled chaperone from afar. I personally would have really valued this service when my Mum was ailing and had a fall at home and was unable to get up. Thankfully, in this instance, she had a care visitor later that morning to assist her. There have been startups that have incorporated energy into a broader suite of monitoring tools to provide this exact service. 

By making energy data more accessible, especially via initiatives like the My Energy Marketplace project, we hope to spur innovation and creative, curious thinking to make these innovative services a reality.

Can you explain ‘Energy Data as a Service?’

I came to Wattwatchers from a startup that wanted to do this sort of innovation, creating a platform for local energy trading, where a householder with solar could sell their energy to their neighbours, or family and friends.

When starting out, I was coming to the energy space with a ‘digital innovation’ mindset, having been in the digital world for many years and seeing the rise of data-led startups in ecommerce, social media, entertainment, and many other fields.

I kind of assumed that energy data would be fairly easy to access—that if we got the customer’s permission we’d be able to tap into smart meter data, or the like, to power our service.

Howdoody was I wrong!!

Like myself, I think lots of people underestimate how hard it is to collect energy data, especially at a granular level inside people’s homes. I suspect most people have never really even thought about it. 

Historically this has meant that many business and government initiatives have been designed without actual measurement and verification, and use estimations and deemed results in the absence of real data. Government energy savings schemes, such as those currently operating in NSW and Victoria, are great examples of this. 

Australian and global concerns about consumer data rights, including privacy and security, are making it even harder to collect data, hold it, and make it available to third parties. (We are very supportive of this increased focus on privacy and security, to be clear. But it certainly doesn’t make our jobs, as innovators and creative thinkers, any easier!) 

With some very welcome government support, Wattwatchers has invested in developing a model for data sharing—with pre-approval from customers, and built-in protections and rewards for them—which underpins our emerging business offering that we describe as energy data as a service

Basically this means that we do the hard work of collecting the data, and making it shareable with third parties. This is often anonymised, but even in this form it’s still immensely useful and valuable because it’s so hard to get otherwise. 

Our early data service customers include some of the nation’s leading research institutions working on our energy future. And we’re really excited to explore more and more opportunities.

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