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Renewables heat up

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Renewables, smart homes, AI and IoT will have a massive impact on how energy companies need to address the market in 2018, predicts COLIN BEANEY, IFS’s Global Industry Director for Energy & Utilities.

Every year we’re seeing a virtuous circle speeding up around renewables; 2018 will be no exception. The more renewables are taken up, the smarter and more scalable the technology becomes, with lower construction, operating and maintenance costs. Crucially, the cheaper the energy produced becomes too.

In 2009, it cost just under US$ 300 to generate 1 MW of electricity using solar photovoltaic panels. In 2016, the cost was down to US$ 100. All around the world, renewables companies are now able to offer cheaper energy alternatives. In September 2016 in Nevada, state energy provider NV Energy lost almost 6 percent of its customer base overnight as 15 of the top casinos and hotels in Las Vegas switched over to smaller renewable energy providers. Why? “The sharp decline in the cost of renewable energy” and “being able to control what your supply looks like”, said MGM Resorts, one of the main companies moving account.

BMI’s 2017 Global Renewables Outlook predicts ‘the capacity of renewables will double between 2016 and 2026’. A 2017 Financial Times report, The Big Green Bang, how renewable energy became unstoppable, shows that renewables capacity globally rose by 9 percent in 2016, a 400 percent increase from 2000. Solar power increased by 30 percent worldwide in 2016, and for the second year in a row renewable energy made up more than half the world’s new power generation capacity.

Asian countries are spearheading the development. China accounted for more than 40 percent of capacity growth in global renewable energy in 2016, but other high-power Asian markets, like India, Malaysia, and the Philippines are also expanding in renewables. This boom will in turn affect players in other geographies that will not want to fall behind.

How will this impact energy providers? Most important will be the new opportunities to adapt your business model, join new joint ventures or create new charging models—all these will be essential. Take energy provider Octopus, which delivers renewable pay-as-you-go energy through its easy-to-use online portal to customers in the UK and France. Octopus is now the UK’s largest investor in solar farms, but focuses heavily on customer service, flexible payment models and transparent billing as key customer benefits—as well as renewable energy.

With smart homes, consumers will call the shots

Amazon Alexa, Google Home, the Sony LF-S50G, the Harman Kardon Allure – what has this new generation of smart home assistants got to do with Energy & Utilities? Potentially, a lot. According to analysts like RBC’s Mark Mahaney, Alexa could earn US$10 billion for Amazon by 2020. In addition, MarketsandMarkets predicts that the smart home market will be worth US$ 138 billion by 2023.

Smart meters constitute a big part of this, enabling customers to check and calculate their real-time energy consumption levels in the home to take appropriate steps to cut down energy costs. Thus, smart meters are expected to hold a major share of the smart home market by 2023.

With one single solution for switching between devices in the home, consuming and storing energy and controlling its costs, consumers will have an increasingly powerful role. Following this, they will be in a position to drive even more flexible service and billing systems.

One example of companies leveraging this demand for increased flexibility is HomeServe, a one-stop digital service company providing emergency and energy services to the home. Through its monthly digital subscription model, it supplies services to over 7.8 million homes in the UK and over 3 million homes in the US—including energy services, boilers and meters through third-party suppliers. HomeServe itself owns no energy assets, but with its strong customer service and simple payment models generating powerful loyalty and revenue, service providers like HomeServe could become energy providers—soon, as customer-centric energy provision booms.

The success of agile, customer-centric firms like HomeServe and Octopus is a wake-up call for energy providers. Customers increasingly hold the balance of power in a digital market. For Energy & Utilities companies, it is a reminder of how new vital, flexible, and agile billing and service, as well as operations, can pose either a competitive advantage or a threat— depending on how you are addressing the market.

The industry gets smarter as AI and IoT move ahead

As consumer demand dictates energy supply and billing, IoT, machine learning and AI capabilities will add another dimension to this, not just in the field at the edge of operations, but at the heart of products and in homes, too.

Gartner predicts that “by 2022, more than 80 percent of enterprise IoT projects will have an AI component, up from less than 10 percent today.” But what would a machine-to-machine, cloud-based energy system, discretely sited in consumers’ homes, look like? In 2016 in Hawaii, Microsoft collaborated on a renewable energy initiative using 499 IoT-connected home water heaters, all IoT-enabled and connected to Microsoft Azure Cloud, to create an autonomous discrete energy grid that stores overspill energy for future use. The 499 water heaters are called Grid-Interactive Electric Thermal Storage (GETS) devices. The machines monitor energy consumption and performance, and store hot water when there is a surfeit of renewable solar and wind energy. Each heater is able to store 52 – 120 gallons of piping hot water. Combined, the water heaters can hold 15 to 25 kilowatt-hours energy. Hawaii spends about US$ 6 billion every year importing oil, so being able to store excess renewably generated energy could have a major impact, helping Hawaii reach its goal of its state utilities generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2045. One of the most impressive aspects of the Hawaii story is its precision business case. For an island with a lot of renewable wind and solar energy, storage was a key priority and would deliver obvious customer benefits.

For energy providers, 2018 will be about finding the sweet spot, connecting consumers’ demands for increased flexibility and cost control to new services and charging models based on renewable energy sources and emerging technologies—those who succeed with this will be the winners.

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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