Flicking the switch: It’s time for Australia to embrace energytech and all its possibilities


EnergyLab co-founder and chair Piers Grove. Source: Supplied.

With a federal election only weeks away, there is a powerful opportunity for the next government — whoever wins — to do more to foster energytech.

It’s high time to generate more techno-optimism on the energy-reform front. This a good news story. There’s a lot more that our governments can do to drive innovation, especially in the electricity sector, where digital disruption will be transformative. Even better still, the benefits will flow through the electricity system all the way to consumers.

Most of those consumers are voters too. So smart energy policy is smart politics. Look no further than the Andrews Labor government in Victoria, which a few months ago romped into a second term, in an election where its progressive policies on ‘new energy’, among other themes, stood in stark contrast to the conservative alternative.

It’s no coincidence that in the year or so before the November election, the Andrews government opened its Centre for New Energy Technologies (C4NET), launched a mass program to part-fund a further 650,000 solar homes, and threw a supportive arm around local energy technology companies.

When I talk about energytech, I actually mean a lot more than the obvious, like solar systems, battery storage, energy-efficient appliances, utility-style smart meters and electric vehicles. I am talking about unleashing the full gamut of the digital revolution to create a better, smarter, cleaner, more resilient and less expensive energy system.

I am talking about smart buildings in smart communities. Net zero energy homes and commercial buildings, with growing integration of our built environment, our energy and our future transport in electron-powered vehicles. All manner of apps and online services, helping consumers to get more value out of the energy they consume, at less monetary cost, and with a lighter environmental footprint too. The cloud, the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence, blockchain, and technologies we don’t even know about yet.

When myself and co-founders Nick Lake and James Tilbury launched EnergyLab in Sydney just on two years ago, I was a serial entrepreneur and investor with zilch experience in the energy sector. Fortunately, Nick was a solar industry veteran and James had an uncanny knowledge of the emerging technologies.  

I just thought, how hard can it be?

The positive report-back is we’ve done it. To date, 27 startups have been launched with our acceleration program’s help, many of which have raised capital and generated significant turnover.

I can’t pretend, however, that it’s been easy.

Innovation within the energy sector is damned hard, for multiple reasons.

Genuine systemic change will only result when governments step in and lend broad-spectrum support. More government support is needed if NSW and Australia are going to transform the energy sector at the speed demanded by climate science, consumer demand and economic reality. Happily enough, the policy levers available to governments are well known. It’s simply a matter of applying them to the electricity system, just as other outdated industrial sectors have been restructured and retired.

Modernise the regulatory system, mandating cost-effective technologies to make the whole electricity system more intelligent, as well as being more decentralised. Create incentives to drive retrofitting of today’s solutions to yesterday’s infrastructure, such as adding remote monitoring to rooftop solar systems, many of which pre-date contemporary digital devices and cloud services. Pump-prime the new innovators with grants and access to investment capital. Use government procurement to give early-stage technologies a leg up.

So what is holding us back?

It’s certainly not a lack of innovators and startup entrepreneurs.

In the startup world, however, energytech is typically the poor cousin to the more high-profile investment areas such as fintech, medtech, biotech and agtech. In the climate change world, meanwhile, public debate and policy-making tend to be dominated by the mega matters of coal versus renewables, high electricity bills and the endless warring over putting a price on carbon.

Technology in the form of harnessing the digital revolution and a myriad of solutions, large and small, to transform the energy sector gets far less attention than it deserves. The pace of change tends to be frustratingly slow in the energy sector, and technology innovators often face scarce investment prospects and ultra-slow sales cycles, which mean that energytech is no place for those looking to turn a quick buck and move on.

While the Australian government has torn itself apart over environment and energy policy, it would be wrong to tar the current NSW coalition government with the same climate brush.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s government is making substantial investments in renewables and wider climate action. A Michael Daley-led Labor government, if the opposition happens to be successful at the March state poll, also can be expected to embrace more enlightened renewable energy and climate action policies, in line with reforms and targets that the Bill Shorten-led federal opposition is proposing at the national level, including 50% renewable electricity generation by 2030.

On the energytech front, however, both of the major parties should understand that NSW has fallen well behind the most progressive energy transition leadership jurisdictions: Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. It also arguably lags South Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and even Tasmania in some key areas.

It’s unequivocally time to switch on to the energytech opportunity, especially here in NSW.

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