Storms, reforms, storage & solar

In a previous blog I discussed how a series of events in the final months of 2016 brought to a head the forces of change sweeping through our energy system. Further, these events amplify the need for significant innovations in how we deliver electricity to end users, requiring that we accelerate the shift to an affordable and reliable renewable energy future.

To help us do that we’ve created a new initiative designed to engage with leading innovators from across the sector – from the biggest incumbents to the smallest start-ups, researchers and regulators, thinkers and doers.

ARENA’s integrating renewable and grids innovation lab, or A-Lab, is designed to seize the opportunity for innovation required to design and build the energy system of the future. A-Lab is structured around 6 innovation ‘frames’ or themes covering market design, technology and regulation.

A key theme of A-Lab is ‘innovation through action’ – experimenting and prototyping in order to test a variety of approaches to solve key challenges. A-Lab uses a disciplined innovation process to create ideas, build and test those ideas and scale successful innovations to create impact.

A-Lab’s objectives are to:

  • Create a high quality portfolio of innovative experiments able to be co-funded by ARENA and industry
  • Enable knowledge sharing by connecting the right people, discussing both successes and failures, filling knowledge gaps all while building industry and governments’ capacity to innovate

And we’ve started work. In February 2016 we ran a collaborative process to co-design and pilot A-Lab with a broad range of stakeholders. Starting with our first innovation frame, Show me the customer driven distributed energy market in action, we convened industry leaders to generate fresh ideas and then build our first experiments.

The first success out of our pilot session is the decentralised energy exchange (deX) project. deX is a prototype online marketplace which will enable electricity networks to access the electricity generated by households and businesses with rooftop solar and storage assets. This world-first not only offers solar assets owners a chance to utilise their excess power but should also strengthen the grid. And that’s just the start.

What gets me particularly excited is that we’re seeing progressive utility businesses getting heavily engaged. Both networks and energy retailers are collaborating, and we’re seeing these large incumbents working with clean energy start-ups to trial new technologies, new business models and new consumer product offerings.

We’ve learnt that there is tremendous value in creating an environment that enables collaboration and creativity. Part of the value of an innovation lab is that it can force people out of the rut of the usual sort of thinking. Key to this is getting energy sector incumbents to think like start-ups – our A-Lab experiments must be low cost and rapid; pushing the envelope of what can be achieved in a short timeframe so we can learn, or fail, fast.

Accelerating the pace of experimentation and innovation is critical if we are to achieve our goals of decarbonisation, system reliability and affordability for our energy system. As our team has been grappling with how best to enable this sort of systemic change, we think about speed but also about creating momentum.

A-Lab’s goal is to create and launch a multitude of experiments, with the aim that these “pioneering practices” can create the momentum required to enable us to realise our vision of a system transformed. And we will need momentum and extraordinary innovation in order to transform the enormously complex energy system.

As discussed in my previous blog, in late 2016 a huge storm felled 20 transmission towers in South Australia, jolting us into the realisation that the energy system must fundamentally change. ARENA hopes that through A-Lab – filling knowledge gaps, working collaboratively and creatively – the sector can develop 20, or even more, pioneering experiments to lead that change.

If you want a better feel for what A-Lab is and how we work, check out our short video of our first ‘ideate’ meeting. If you’d like to register your interest in participating in A-Lab’s program of work in 2017 please leave your details here.

Enjoy, and stay tuned for more updates on A-Lab.