Q&A: Why Brighte’s Katherine McConnell was right to “bet the house” on renewable energy tech

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Brighte founder and chief Katherine McConnell.

With the 26th UN Climate Change Conference just around the corner and the Prime Minister unveiling his net-zero plan this week, renewable energy has never been a hotter topic.

But back in 2015, Brighte founder and chief Katherine McConnell had already seen the opportunity in the sector, and she was willing to bet her house on it — literally. 

Brighte offers interest-free payment plans for homeowners making climate-conscious improvements such as installing solar panels, insulation or battery storage.

To date it has processed more than $1 billion in finance applications for some 90,000 households.

At the end of 2020, the startup secured $100 million in Series C funding in a round led by Grok Ventures, the VC fund of Mike and Annie Cannon-Brookes.

In September 2021 Brighte was selected as the exclusive administrator for the ACT’s Sustainable Household Scheme, which provides zero-interest loans for clean energy products.

The business has also been named one of the best startups to work for in Australia in 2021, and earlier this month McConnell herself took the joint-title of outstanding fintech leader of the year at the Finnies awards.

The world has changed since 2015, and Brighte has evolved with it. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt in that time, it’s that McConnell was right to take a punt on renewables.

What changes have you seen in the renewable energy-tech sector since you launched Brighte in 2015?

Well firstly solar is everywhere. Australia now leads the world in rooftop solar penetration and access to finance has played a part in accelerating that.

Batteries have also come a long way. We started the decade with smartphones and slim laptops, and we ended it with battery-powered cars and homes. While they are still expensive, electric vehicles have become commercially viable for the first time in history.

Storage both in our homes and on the large scale (like Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia) is critical to move away from a world dependent on fossil fuel.

There’s also growing awareness of sustainability in the home, and that comfort and sustainability can go hand in hand.

What are the opportunities for other startups in this space?

I think this is the space to be in. Businesses exist to solve problems and getting to net zero will be solved by innovation.

There’s huge opportunity in the sector and Mike and Annie Cannon-Brookes’ pledge to devote $1.5 billion of their own money by 2030 proves it.

Electric vehicles are also a huge opportunity, with many car manufacturers completely wiping out diesel and petrol cars from their roadmap.

Over the past few years we’ve seen increasing consumer focus on renewable energy and climate change in general. Did you see this coming? How did you position Brighte to serve that demand and grow off the back of it?

I suppose you could say I bet the house on renewable energy.

To start Brighte I redrawed on our family mortgage, but it wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I had sound knowledge of the market and the gaps within it. I knew there was a lot of opportunity for renewable energy; the huge take up in residential solar shows the incredible appetite consumers have for creating their own clean energy.

In my previous role [as a founding member of the Australian Macquarie Energy Leasing team] at Macquarie, I also spoke to vendors day in and day out, and understood the barriers to adopting solar panels and batteries.

Cost was the biggest hurdle (and still is), so I focused my energy on creating Brighte as a solution for them.

This has perfectly positioned us for our next burst of growth. We’re now entering a phase of our business where we’re focusing on homeowners and we’re researching and testing products to best serve them.

Brighte recently secured a partnership with the ACT government to administer its Sustainable Household Scheme. What does that mean for you and for the business?

Making homes more sustainable is critical in the race to net zero. The ACT Sustainable Household Scheme provides a sticker of approval and gives consumers greater confidence in using payment plans to do so.

The program adds another string to our bow and opens up a new route for us to tackle other states.

It should also unlock battery take up. Many of our customers install solar panels, but get to a point of, ‘OK, what now?’

The next thing they start looking at is how to store the electricity to rely less on the grid. This is when they start looking at batteries.

Does that partnership represent a change in the way governments are thinking about renewable energy? What does that mean for businesses in the sector?

Climate change is everyone’s business and the program signals just a part of the ACT’s climate change initiatives. This year many installers were forced to put their tools down with lockdowns.

The scheme will boost the local economy and grow jobs in the renewable energy industry, all while making homes more sustainable.

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