A growing name in the distributed energy sector in New Zealand, Our Energy is here to shake up the country’s electricity market. I had a chat with Our Energy’s CEO, John Campbell to see what they are all about.
In basic terms, Our Energy positions itself as a platform for communities to trade renewable energy.
The idea for this business sparked while John was observing a typical New Zealand roadside vegetable stall. He thought:
“If people can sell produce to their community, can you sell power to your local community??? Not a simple answer... Solving the problem is crucial for decarbonisation. Where climate change hits is community level.”
The platform that John and his team have built acts similar to an energy retailer, but rather than just being the seller of energy, they are facilitating local trading of electricity. John explains:
“It measures carbon free energy production and matches that with demand.”
So who does Our Energy serve? It’s homes and businesses with solar power or other forms of clean distributed generation (DG) that want to sell their excess power, and then other homes or businesses who want to know they are buying from renewable energy sources.
The unique thing that Our Energy does is they look at the half-hour data provided by energy meters of people buying and selling power. Based on that, they can make a direct match with the two parties as long as they are in the same community (mostly this is done on a regional basis, but Our Energy is seeing growing interest in establishing other forms of communities on its platform (eg, workplaces and staff).
When Our Energy can make this supply and demand match, they will offer the power-generating customers a selling price of 12c/kWh.
If they can’t make a match in the same time period when renewable power is supplied in a community, then, for example, the excess solar from a home would be sold for wholesale market prices, which can vary.
A clear benefit to those having solar or wind power is that they can get a good and stable buy-back price for their excess energy. So what about the customers who are in the market to only buy?
They get the advantage of knowing when electricity prices are cheap and when their community energy is likely to be available, thanks to Our Energy’s dashboard. They can see when there is a lot of community energy like solar being sold on the market and snap it up for a good price. Those who cannot afford the upfront cost or whose housing situation doesn’t allow for solar can now benefit from the low cost of solar energy.
However, this likely means changing their power consumption behaviour. For example, Our Energy’s customers are installing timers on their hot water cylinders to take advantage of cheap solar power during the day. Or putting delay starts on their dishwashing machines or dryers.
How The Community Will Flourish
As with many communities, they grow organically. That is the way Our Energy is growing - with over a hundred people now signed up nationwide. There is an incentive for the users who generate electricity to encourage their friends and family to sign up, as they need to make sure someone is going to buy their excess solar power.
Our Energy’s Battle
“The electricity market never imagined DG,” as John puts it. The market is currently structured from the top down, not side to side. Traditionally, large generators, such as hydro dams produce the power, Transpower distributes the energy across the country, and the lines companies distribute it within regions, finally arriving at the customer.
But now, for example, homes with solar want to sell their power to their neighbours, and those neighbours want to buy electricity from locals who won’t keep hiking up the prices (like the electricity market does each year).
Market regulation and policy haven’t caught up with the concept of community energy in New Zealand. John states “Regulatory change is necessary to unleash distributed energy. For example, current regulation restricts consumers from accessing different services via different traders at an ICP.”
Another thing John says needs to change in regulations is enabling pricing or rewards for those who want to trade locally. Currently, those buying solar power from their neighbours are paying the full logistical charge as if they are in Kerikeri, buying power from a Hydro dam in Cromwell. “There’s not enough incentive for people to be flexible with their energy use and trade locally”.
John and his team are engaging with regulators and policymakers to help unlock the benefits of distributed energy.
John Campbell, 4th from the left, on the Energy Futures Panel at the Blue & Green Technology Conference, 2022
The Future For Our Energy
Our Energy doesn’t aim to be a big energy retailer (or an alternative to one). The main aim is for their software to be used by existing energy retailers and local networks, and therefore help make distributed energy a valuable feature (not a bug!) in the country’s energy mix, enabling all New Zealanders to tap into the benefits of clean, locally produced energy.
Our Energy’s Customer: Richard
Richard and his family installed solar and batteries on their home in Tawa, Wellington. Why?
Richard explains - “working in emergency management myself and living in the Wellington region meant I was well aware of the possibility of power outages.”
Richard joined Our Energy initially because of the solar buy-back rates, but now realises it’s about being a “part of a community that has the same goals and visions as us when it comes to how we want to generate and share power.”
Through Our Energy’s software, Richard likes to see how much carbon dioxide they have avoided and how much money they saved, being $423 over one year.