Murray Hogarth.

With power prices going through the roof, energy efficiency has suddenly become a top priority for many building owners. But you can’t manage what you don’t measure. According to Murray Hogarth of Wattwatchers his business, for one,  is booming, with 60,000 of the firm’s devices being used, big name partners including Clipsal, and the team now numbering 16 employees.

Managing operational energy use isn’t a concern for just the businesses with net zero targets (although almost everyone seems to be getting in on the act these days). It matters for anyone who gets a power bill.

So, it’s a great time for The Fifth Estate to have a chat with Murray Hogarth, the head of impact and communications at Wattwatchers. His scaleup business makes devices and cloud-based services for monitoring building energy use.

But wait, you say, weren’t utility smart meters supposed to solve the issue or monitoring energy use?

Well, the big issue, Hogarth says, is that smart meters aren’t actually that smart. 

(Just ask anyone who lived through Steve Bracks’ mandatory smart meter rollout in Victoria!)

“The metering that they use needs to be compliant with old standards,” he says.

What that means is those “smart” meters are good at doing the job they’re designed for – providing data to a utility about how much grid power a building uses so it can generate a bill.

But they’re a lot less useful in modern buildings that have solar panels, on-site batteries and electric cars. 

Utility smart meters can show you when your photovoltaic system is exporting power to the grid. But finding out how much of your power is being generated by your PV, as opposed to the grid, at any given moment will take some guesswork. 

They’re also not particularly good at showing you which circuits in your building are drawing the most power (is it your heat pumps or your hot water system?) or sharing data to other platforms (such as home or building automation systems) to manage discretionary power use.

Plugging in a solution

Back in 2007, a small team decided to launch a startup to solve these challenges.

“It was, in some ways, a classic startup story, and in some not so much,” Hogarth says. “It was an older founding team of almost retired people who came up with the idea that consumers needed energy data to empower them.”

A few years later in 2014, the firm launched a device, called the Auditor, that sits inside a meter box and monitors power flows (including how much different building circuits use and where that power is coming from) and sends it to the cloud.

This data is fed, in real time, into a mobile app called app, and is also accessible to third-party apps through a cloud-based platform called ADEPT.

Investors clearly see the opportunities. In September of last year, the scaleup raised $5.3 million in a Series B funding round, with investors including private equity firm Kilara Capital and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. 

ARENA has also backed the firm, pouring $2.7 million into a $10 million, 3.5-year project called My Energy Marketplace, which is looking into real-time energy data sharing. It has contributed funds to a $1.75 million microgrid trial Wattwatchers is involved with in the Gippsland town of Hayfield. 

A powerful business model

According to Hogarth, business is booming. There’s now around 60,000 of the devices in the field. Big name partners (including the likes of Clipsal) are using the firm’s technology to power their own solution. The small team has grown to 16 employees.

“The biggest thing we’re seeing at the moment is that net zero is driving significant corporate interest in solutions where energy data is needed,” Hogarth says.

“That might be banks looking at more green loans and the carbon associated with their home loans, engineering companies wanting to monitor their projects and understand their energy use.”

In the residential market, Hogarth says there’s a growing expectation that solar systems will be bundled with a smart monitoring solution.

The financial pinch of rising power bills is leading to a surge in the number of people who want to go off the grid with solar. But global supply chain issues – and even the weather – are challenges for people who want to get solar panels installed.

But the outlook for the company’s business is strong. “We’re going to sort of move to a much more distributed data and technology enabled sort of electricity system.” The recent federal election, Hogarth says, has removed some of the barriers and shown “the public mood is to get on with it”.

Broader market issues

The issue with smart metering is part of a bigger, and at this point well-documented problem – a grid that’s stuck in the past. 

It’s built on the assumption that centralised fossil fuel, power stations and electricity flows one way to consumers, Hogarth says, who get a bill in arrears every month or three months “and don’t know a lot else about it”.

The problem is that this infrastructure is now trying to manage two-way energy flows from buildings and many different generators, rather than a handful of big coal power plants.

“The poles and wires companies that run distribution networks don’t have good visibility of the low voltage network, don’t have good visibility of what solar systems are doing, or what voltage is doing, which is a critical factor for how much solar can be accommodated on the grid. 

“The people who are trying to keep the whole electricity system reliable and stable and affordable don’t have good visibility of what’s actually happening in real time. And when things go wrong in the electricity system, it happens in real time.”

A big switch in the market

But where electricity, not too long ago, was a mature marketplace dominated by a few big players – both private utilities and state-owned energy companies – things are changing fast. 

The advent of electric cars is driving firms such as Ampol into the market, while utilities from other fields – most notably Telstra – are dipping their toes in the water too, Hogarth says. 

As The Fifth Estate has recently reported, green developers are also getting in on the act, with the likes of Frasers (through its Real Utilities division) and WA’s Hesperia either setting up power companies for their new projects, or at looking at it seriously.  

But at the same time, Hogarth says, a lot of the more small innovative energy companies and community initiatives that have been trying to get a foothold in the market are being wiped out.

“We can’t tell you exactly what the future is going to be and which technologies are going to win. Is everybody going to have a storage battery in their home? Or will they use their electric vehicle as the battery is well? How much more solar will there be?”

“But whatever that future combination of energy infrastructure solutions is, they’re going to need a lot of data, because it’s going to have to be much smarter, faster and digitised. And for that, you need really granular real time data. That’s what we do.”

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