3rd June 2019
The challenges of working on the cutting edge of smart energy
Greg Jackson, Founder
Energy needs to change, and fast. We need to move to a smart grid quickly, to enable affordable green energy. Both words are important – energy is something we all need just to live - so affordability is critical. And it’s got to be green – otherwise we won’t have a planet.
Octopus is leading this charge. Whilst there are admirable research projects at universities around the world, industry working groups, government consultations and innovative startups – Octopus is building solutions at scale. Octopus Investments has invested almost £3bn in renewable generation; tens of millions in smart grid technologies – and Octopus Energy is approaching £1bn in revenue, all through our unique technologies – designed to bring the smart grid to reality as quickly as possible.
Our choice to do this is the right thing – there are many unknowns, and what we know from every other significant innovation is that the only way to really discover what the right answers look like is to build them in the real world with real customers.
What we know from every other significant innovation is that the only way to really discover what the right answers look like is to build them in the real world, with real customers.
For us, this means we’re continually creating path-finding new products. Octopus Tracker with prices which change daily to guarantee you get the market rate; Agile where the price changes every half hour to enable you to benefit from cheap electricity when the sun shines, the wind blows, and the networks are under-utilised. Octopus Go is perfect for EV drivers, with four hours a night of super cheap electricity; and we now have Outgoing Octopus – paying you for energy you put onto the grid.
These technologies and products are already complex – with perhaps 1000x more data than energy companies are used to – and massively complex interactions between how customer behaviour changes, volatile markets and other considerations such as regulation and information presentation. For example, it’s impossible for us to give an up-front estimate on Agile, because its entire purpose is to help customers save money by changing the way they use electricity, so instead we had to invent new ways of communicating this.
And underneath all of this lies the biggest challenge – the UK’s smart meter programme. Specified over a decade ago, it’s finally making it into reality – but it’s still basically a beta-programme – with many technical considerations and issues yet to be flushed out. Simply installing a SMETS2 meter is not yet straightforward (see my other blog on the issues here) – but as Octopus is working at the cutting edge of smart meter capabilities (and exceeding them) we are encountering and solving issues that were unknown, unforeseen or unresolved.
Sometimes, innovative software faces issues when it meets older systems
A lot of customers on Octopus Go (our smart tariff for electric vehicle drivers with a cheap off-peak rate every night between 0.30-4.30) have queried what happens when the clocks change.
This should be straightforward – the cheap rate is always between 0030-0430, whatever the time of year – but some customers have noticed that their in-home display (part of the smart meter infrastructure) shows the cheap rate kicking in at 0130, or 2330, following our recent switch to BST.
And then they look at our bills, and see the cheap period kicking in at 0030. So why is the IHD giving incorrect information, and does it actually effect bills? The challenge is that the IHD isn't able to “determine" anything – it’s just displaying some information. Getting that information from Octopus to an IHD is pretty complicated, generally first going to DCC (the government’s data company, which handles smart meter data), then to TMA (a company who connect Octopus’s smart meters to DCC), then to the comms hub (a regulated device which carries the signal to the smart meter), then to the smart meter itself and finally IHD (which sits on a different network, established by your electricity meter). As the information goes through each of these many steps, there's a chance that the time signal might be “helpfully” corrected from GMT to BST etc.
There are quite a few different ways to get a message to the IHD and some are simpler than others, but allow less functionality – so we’re trying to use the smartest, but it’s also the most complex.
It’s hard to de-bug some of these issues (especially when it’s not obvious which bit of the chain is the issue), and there are many combinations of circumstances that don’t show up in lab testing. Additionally, we don’t want to wait until new products and services are perfect – otherwise we won’t innovate fast enough to get to the smart grid in a useful amount of time.
we don’t want to wait until new products and services are perfect – otherwise we won’t innovate fast enough to get to the smart grid in a useful amount of time
Instead, we ensure that everything we do is “good enough” and then compensate for any issues by being phenomenally contactable. We have forums for users of Agile and Go to discuss and answer queries, and we’re very available by email too. We don’t dress things up – we’re upfront about what’s awesome, what’s a bit rubbish and everything in between.
You’re never locked into Octopus – you can switch between our tariffs and products same day and can move to another supplier without exit fees – so if there’s ever anything you don’t like, and we can’t solve it, you’re free to go.
Of course, we hope all of this makes you stay.
If you want to be with the company driving the affordable energy revolution, working hard to bring costs down and transparency up, then we’re doing everything to make Octopus the very best option.
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