​How Origin Energy is preparing for the future

The company is looking to remain relevant by analysing data, partnering with startups, and not sparing any technology vertical in its pursuit of what Future Energy looks like.

Australian energy company Origin Energy made a decision a few years ago to create a team that focuses on predicting what the energy landscape will look like in the future.

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Although general manager of Future Energy Cameron Briggs told ZDNet Origin Energy is not exactly sure what the future holds, he said the energy sector will be fundamentally different even in just a few years' time.

Briggs, as of 18 months ago, leads this team from Silicon Valley, where he shares a "collaborative" space with three other energy-focused executives from Korea, Germany, and Denmark.

The Future Energy team is dedicated to ensuring Origin Energy does not become redundant. Briggs said it is charged with determining how to best equip the company with the skills and capabilities it needs to respond to an uncertain future.

"It's the lego blocks that we need, the people and the technologies and the companies that we're going to have to closely work with as we prepare for a future that's going to be quite fundamentally different," Briggs told ZDNet at AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas this week.

Briggs and his team spend a lot of time looking outside Australia for elements to bring back, but preparing for an unknown future is not always an easy mandate.

There are a few certainties, however, including Australia's push to decarbonise the economy, and for there to be changes in the types of energy technologies -- most notably solar.

"One of the only energy technologies that doesn't suffer from diseconomies of scale -- which means small scale is almost the same as large scale -- will mean that you can put distributed solar everywhere. It's a decentralised transformation in terms of what happens to the energy sector," Briggs explained.

Another certainty will be digitisation -- the way customers use energy, and of course, the Internet of Things (IoT).

"The way that energies are used is going to be quite different because they're all going to be to a certain extent self-aware," he continued. "They're going to be controlled -- well they're going to know what's going on."

With little certainty on how those three certainties will play out, Briggs said it's important for a company like Origin to distinguish between what it is traditionally good at, and where it needs partners.

"Traditionally I think energy companies have been quite conservative because that's the nature of what it is you do, people want to turn lights on and have the lights come on, so by their nature they tend to be relatively conservative and fairly perhaps inward thinking," he said.

"We made the decision we were going to have to do two things really differently. One is actually look outside of our company, of our country, and find partners to help us do that ... and the second dimension to that is to not only find partners, but work with other energy companies, work with other players, and be a bit more open and transparent about issues that we face."

That is why Origin has set up groups of energy companies that work together to solve different problems, and also found startups to interact with and learn from.

"If you're going to go into a world where you've got signposts but not necessarily clarity about what the end state is going to look like, it means you don't have to try different things. Some work and some won't," Briggs added.

With IoT expected to play a big part of the future, and Briggs noting that it already is, Origin is going to find itself with a lot of data. That is one thing Origin will be ready for, he said.

"You have a lot more data then you have to be able to coordinate, interrogate, and come up with something useful," he added, noting that data is not something the energy sector has previously embraced.

"That's even probably just the base level. That's not a huge accomplishment, it's just getting into the game and then beyond that you have to think, well, if customers have choices around the type of energy they use, leads to batteries, do they install solar, do they have smart metres, even electric vehicles, how does that ecosystem come together?"

A big part of Origin's challenge moving forward will be how the company can use data in the AWS Cloud to benefit customers, Briggs said.

"That's a pretty big transition and that's actively what our teams are working on right now," he continued.

After turning to AWS, Briggs said Origin's uptake of the cloud giant's services has allowed the company to "flourish".

"It started off as a little plant and people realised the flexibility ... that turned into the data analytics team and then it became pretty much an internal shop for helping people coordinate in-house and access different data for different opportunities within the company," Briggs said.

"Previously if we tried to do that it would have taken seven or eight months ... I think having a really organised and coherent data strategy is really key to doing that and doing it efficiently."

Despite being a publicly-traded company, Origin will have the space to innovate and test features out, as well as partner with the likes of startups to entertain and fund their ambitious ideas.

"One of the most attractive features of the energy market is it's a deregulated market, it's liberalised, so it makes it actually quite attractive for many of the startup companies to want to come to Australia and try things because of the fact there is a competitive market," he explained.

Disclosure: Asha McLean travelled to AWS re:Invent as a guest of AWS

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