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For a long time, energy technologies have been stable, customers uninterested, and energy services affordable and reliable enough to keep networks back of mind. Now, customers have more skin in the game, with the take-up of solar, batteries and electric vehicles, and the electrification of everything.

There is more interest than ever in energy networks and, given the volume of change, more opportunities for customers and stakeholders to influence strategic planning processes.

Participants at a recent workshop discuss how Ausnet should approach reliability discussions with customers

Along with other regulated utilities, AusNet is facing increased pressure from regulators to better engage with customers, and provide more evidence that networks understand and are acting in customers’ long-term interests (consistent with the ultimate test; achieving the National Electricity Objective).

AusNet is regarded as a leader in engagement, having participated in the landmark ‘New Reg’ trial in 2019-20, where it negotiated key elements of its Electricity Distribution Price Review (EDPR) 2021-2026. Together with AGIG, AusNet took out the 2022 Energy Networks Australia/ Energy Consumers Australia Consumer Engagement Award for the challenging conversations they had on the future of gas networks.

This achievement was the result of open and honest conversations with customers and stakeholders, and an emphasis on direct research with customers to better understand their motivations, interests and experiences. A key theme in recent engagement activities was AusNet’s openness to difficult conversations, and willingness to be challenged on aspects of their business planning and operations activities that typically haven’t been open for discussion.

AusNet has also begun reporting more transparently on progress against commitments made to customers in the annual Customer Interactions & Monitoring Report, established a forum for large transmission customers to discuss areas of concern, undertaken targeted engagement on improving the distribution system connection process for generators, and co-designed the engagement approach for the Electricity Distribution Price Review (EDPR) 2026-28.

Becoming comfortable with difficult conversations

It’s been a conscious process for AusNet to reach a point where the company is comfortable having challenging conversations on its regulated networks, though there have been a few factors that have contributed significantly. Charlotte Eddy, AusNet’s General Manager Regulation (Electricity Distribution) said, “We are embracing these challenging conversations, and what it means for customers and the business.”

“The nature of our networks makes us very conspicuous. We own and operate the Victorian transmission network as well as the electricity distribution network in Eastern Victoria, servicing a widely dispersed population that is prone to extreme weather events and reliability challenges, and a gas network that we are trying to plan for in a net zero emissions future. We have some high-profile challenges that are hard to hide from, so we choose not to shy away from discussing them.”

“We put our hands up to participate in the ‘New Reg’ trial – undertaken in partnership with the Australian Energy Regulator and Energy Consumers Australia – for our last EDPR 2021-2025. This trial was a step-change in the level of control we gave to customer representatives on what conversations we opened ourselves up to.”

Preparing for difficult conversations

While acknowledging that there is certainly room to improve, AusNet has learnt some valuable lessons in how to have challenging customer and stakeholder conversations.

These include:

  • The importance of having the right culture and support from senior leadership cannot be underestimated. This ensures the business is prepared for external challenges and is flexible in what and how they go about engaging and developing solutions
  • Customer research is powerful. AusNet has put a significant focus on customer research, with an in-house research team collecting customer insights
  • Help your customers and stakeholders participate by providing the right information and tools

“In the past, AusNet has spent a lot of time discussing what customers think and want. By doing research, this is taken off the table, and the focus is then on the detail, nuance, and complexities of issues at hand, rather than hearsay,” Ms Eddy said. “Ask them what they need.

Customer research is a key component, along with clearly explaining our negotiating position, outlining what is in and out of scope for discussions, and sharing operational data and organisational insights.

“Building credibility is important. Closing the loop by clearly showing how you are using customer input, and then actually delivering on what you say you’ll deliver on, is key to ensuring longevity.

To support this feedback loop, AusNet recently launched an engagement portal, Community Hub, which publishes customer research and engagement materials. Goodwill from participants is a must-have for difficult conversations to be productive, and building it means being credible and genuine in your engagement over the long term.”

Are difficult conversations here to stay?

AusNet is now comfortable talking about a much broader range of topics. As well as getting some great outcomes for customers, the organisation is also achieving improved outcomes for the business. “First and foremost, it’s the right thing to do, but incorporating the customer voice more deeply into our planning process is also a great risk management strategy,” Ms Eddy said.

“We know what their priorities, needs and expectations are. By working with our stakeholders, we get our plans and strategies right the first time, which can save a huge amount of time in the long run. It also generates ideas that we might not have thought of ourselves. We don’t think we have all the answers. It’s certainly not the path of least resistance, but we think it’s a win-win for everyone,” Ms Eddy said.

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