The Australian utility industry recently gathered online for The Digital Home: new opportunities for utilities Virtual Conference, which was held on Thursday 30 July. 

Close to 250 delegates registered for the Virtual Conference, which was hosted by Utility Editor, Charlotte Pordage. Over the course of approximately two and a half hours, the speakers explored the challenges and opportunities the growing smart home sector presents for utilities.

Digital technologies are not only having a huge impact on the way utilities do business – which has been accelerated by the Coronavirus pandemic – but also on how they engage with their customers. But what do consumers really think of smart homes, and for utilities, does the smart home pave the way for new revenue streams and business models?

Charlie Richardson, Utilities Lead in Australia and New Zealand at Accenture, kicked things off with his keynote presentation, Putting the human first in the future home, which looked at how the future home is not merely a collection of internet-connected gadgets and protocols, but an attitude.

According to Mr Richardson, this is why companies must understand the complex emotional motivations that are rooted in the home.

“Even before Covid-19, 85 per cent of people said they spend the same or more time at home than five years ago and when asked what home means, technology is not part of the answer – people mention comfort, art, books, cooking, family, health, etc.,” Mr Richardson said.

“While many people appreciate technology makes their life easier, they also said it makes them lazier, intrudes on privacy, and that they have become overly dependent on it – there are clear tensions but also surprising divides across age and family makeup.

“Traditional customer archetypes that focus on tech savvy or young technologists are wrong – there is a clear split in values based on age and if a home has children in it, with early adopters in each group but different mindsets on the future home.”

The key is getting past smart products to focus on real people, with utilities needing to rebuild trust to manage technological tensions and evolve their ‘as-a-service’ vision to guarantee a role in the future home.

This was followed by a panel discussion with Bruce Hansen, Group Manager Gas Networks at Evoenergy; Dr David Bergmann, Research and Development Manager at South East Water; and Renae Sambrooks, Virtual Power Plants & Orchestration at Synergy.

The panel, Taking advantage of technology to enable a new way of living, delved into the projects that are utilising technology to enable lifestyle improvements, power system security and enhanced water management.

Each panellist engaged in a solo Q&A for 10-15 minutes, so delegates could find out a bit more about the specific projects they’ve been working on, which was followed by a general discussion with all three of our industry experts on utility participation in the smart home market. 

Mr Hansen talked about Evoenergy’s Gas-Plus Smart Home Trial, while Dr Bergmann focused on Aquarveo, a unique collaboration between Villawood Properties and South East Water, and Ms Sambrooks fielded a number of questions around the implementation of virtual power plants in the home.

The final presentation for the day came from Yolande Strengers, Associate Professor of Digital Technology and Society at Monash University. 

Yolande shared insights from the Digital Energy Futures project, which aims to understand and forecast changing digital lifestyle trends and their impact on future household electricity demand.

“The project will deliver speculative scenarios and principles about how people will live in the future and implications for energy demand that will affect electricity sector planning in the near (2025-30) and medium-far (2030-50) futures,” Ms Strengers said.

“We hope it will also deliver demand management innovations/solutions that help Australian electricity network businesses to plan for efficient, cost-effective and reliable networks.”

Six scenarios – heating, cooling and comfort, working and studying from home, caring from home, entertainment and convenience, driving and charging, and energy management – were formed from aggregated industry predictions and shown in playful ‘comic strip’ representations. 

The next steps for the project involve ethnographic (in-depth) research with 72 households across six consumer groups and demographic variables to see how consumers relate to the different scenarios.

The Virtual Conference was well attended by members of the Australian utility industry, and the level of engagement with speakers through interactive questioning was particularly strong.

For anyone who didn’t have a chance to watch the Virtual Conference live, the entire conference can be viewed on demand; and individual presentations can also be viewed online too.

If you’d like to listen to any of the presentations, click here to view them on demand.

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

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