Octopus Energy is made up of 1000+ fantastic people working on stuff you'd never expect, all pushing hard towards a shared goal: driving the global green energy revolution. In our Spotlight series, we'll introduce you to some of the brilliant people behind the scenes.
Today, we're talking to Lucy Yu, CEO of our Centre for Net Zero; an innovative research unit dedicated to advancing the global energy transition to combat climate change. With unprecedented global insight into how homes use energy, we think of the Centre as one of the world's largest living labs.
Lucy, one of the Financial Times’ 100 most influential BAME leaders in tech, gives an inside look at the Centre's fascinating work, and the importance of data and people-centred research in our quest for net zero.
Samsam: Tell me about the Centre for Net Zero?
We are an impact driven research unit, pioneering research to deliver a faster, fairer and more affordable energy transition.
Lucy: Those three core principles guide all of our work. Our vision of the future energy system is one where data, digitalisation and widespread ownership of low carbon technologies will play a critical role.
For example, we anticipate that most households will have an electric vehicle, heat pump, smart thermostat, home battery or solar panels within the next decade. Our research will help to understand how we can integrate these distributed energy resources alongside renewable generation to make a new system which is both greener and cheaper for consumers. All of these things will be part of our future energy system, so it will look radically different from the past.
The answer to a green energy future might involve using artificial intelligence and automation, raising new questions and opportunities that haven’t previously been addressed.
On a practical level, we conduct independent analysis, build products, collaborate with academics and form broader partnerships. We share our research publicly and wherever possible, we also share the data that it’s based on so that both our findings and our data can be used by others in service of a green future.
Samsam: What are you currently working on?
Lucy: We’ve recently finished a big piece of research to simulate heat pump adoption across the UK. We wanted to investigate whether government installation targets could be met and if so, what actions would be needed to meet them. Thankfully we think that the answer is ‘yes’! Our research used an approach known as agent-based modelling which enabled us to recognise important variations in household decision-making in our simulation.
We also have a number of academic collaborations underway. We’re working with the Turing Institute and the University of Newcastle to understand the impact more low carbon technologies will have on local electricity networks. And we’re working with the Universities of Cologne and Maryland to look at the role of domestic flexibility in supporting resilient energy systems.
A shot of the podcast creative team hard at work
Our ‘Project Faraday’ aims to develop an API that generates electricity usage profiles based on different sets of data. You’ll be able to configure a set of households and low carbon technologies, and generate different load profiles taking account of different weather and tariff information.
We're also working on some 'Future Energy Profiles' - producing detailed profiles of several global cities and collecting crucial data concerning their local energy transitions.
Finally, we’ve just launched our podcast ‘Inside the Energy Transition’, to tell the wider story of our energy future alongside our research and with the help of our expert guests.
As we all work towards a green energy future, we need to understand the needs of people, and how to meet them most efficiently. This research will help us determine what elements are important for a future energy system.
Samsam: What sets you apart from other research centres?
Lucy: We’re unique because we have access to billions of data points through our relationship with Octopus Energy, who now have offices in 14 countries and 25 million customers on the Kraken platform. This means we have access to an unprecedented amount of near real-time, anonymised data covering households that own low carbon technologies. While many of these households could be described as early adopters, we must recognise that we’re rapidly moving out of that phase and into the majority - so what we learn from today’s data can help us understand the next wave of energy trends.
We have access to an unprecedented amount of near real-time data covering households that own low carbon tech such as electric vehicles or those using innovative smart tariffs. I sometimes call it the world's largest living lab.
Samsam: What drew your interest in energy research?
Lucy: I originally trained as a scientist and studied chemistry, where I loved researching emerging fields such as computational and quantum chemistry. I was particularly interested in the ways innovative research could be applied to create positive changes in the real world.
So, I started my working life in Government and worked a whole host of roles focused on tech, innovation and digitalisation. After a few years, I had the opportunity to join a start-up called SwiftKey, developing AI-powered software for smartphones just as they were beginning to enter the market. It was a huge success; we ended up developing one of the best selling apps globally, and after that I worked for several more research-led start-ups, as well as a further stint back in government.
As a result I’ve always known I enjoy being at the interface of tech, policy, and the real world, with all its complexity. The energy transition will be driven and accelerated by tech and impact all of our lives, so energy research seemed a logical move to make.
Quick Fire Round
What is your favourite memory from the early days of the Centre?
I love seeing bold ventures go from idea to reality so it was exciting to hire the first team members and see the vision start to come to life.
Also, hearing Al Gore's support for our work was pretty incredible…I think we still have a team GIF of his speech somewhere!
What is your favourite place in the world?
El Retiro Park in Madrid. It’s magnificent and a total feast for the senses - beautiful and vibrant throughout the seasons, with wonderful birdsong in the background. And just a short walk from some of the best art museums on the planet.
Any unusual hobbies?
Haha! I don’t have a lot of time for hobbies. I bought a huge canvas to make a tondo (a circular painting) seven years ago and still haven’t finished sketching out the design. I’m hoping to get to the paint stage by the end of the decade! I also follow football and people are always surprised when they find out. I still remember the days of the old First Division!
Any work comforts/rituals?
I drink a LOT of coffee. I’ve normally had at least three before the first meeting of the day!
A random fact I love…
You can’t photocopy banknotes (and no, I didn’t learn this by trying!).
Samsam: It seems you’ve always been at the cutting edge of research. How did that lead you to be involved with Centre for Net Zero?
Lucy: Greg contacted me with a cryptic message about looking for someone to build a new Octopus research centre. I knew of Octopus because of their strong reputation for innovation and sustainability in tech and energy - so it immediately seemed like it could be a good fit. I knew that a lot of industries where I had prior experience - such as transport and telecoms - would start converging with the energy sector as we all work to combat climate change, so I was excited to potentially be at the forefront of this.
Samsam: What’s it been like working with the entire Centre for Net Zero team?
Lucy: Building the Centre and the team has been one of the most absorbing and tough challenges I’ve taken on – I built the entire organisation remotely from scratch, at the height of the pandemic when even getting a pint of milk wasn’t straightforward! It was a new experience for us all and we’ve had some of the normal start-up road bumps along the way but luckily we’ve settled into some strong ways of working together. We're a small and agile team and work closely together on projects. We’re working with cutting edge tech and data so an important element to our work is creativity and collaboration.
The amazing Centre for Net Zero Team
Beyond our core team, we are also aiming to build a wider community, by connecting with leaders in the tech, energy and climate space as we are all working together towards a shared goal.
Lucy: We foster this sense of community through our podcast where we discuss the realities of a just and green energy revolution. We have also started a series of expert talks called the ‘En_Tech_Talks’, where we bring together some of the leading innovators in the tech, energy and climate spaces.
An image of the Centre's very first ‘En_Tech_Talks’.
Samsam: How much of your research is focused on a just transition and how do you think this will play out in the real world?
Lucy: In all of our research we try to avoid using average values, because they can unhelpfully obscure all the variation that exists in the real world. So one of the innovations in our research is identifying the distributional impacts of different potential policies or decisions.
One of the things I’m personally interested in is whether the use of technology could help some places to speed up their own energy transition, by skipping some of the messy intermediate phases associated with legacy infrastructure. The internet is a good analogy: some parts of the global south were able to skip the desktop phase, and go straight to mobile. So, those countries were ahead of more developed countries when it came to things like mobile finance - and there could be some equivalences here in energy.
Samsam: Where do you envision the Centre in 5 years time?
Lucy: I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of the space we operate in. In five years I’d love to have broadened our external collaborations, have a clutch of landmark studies under our belt, and some tech products - starting with our Project Faraday - being used in weird and wonderful ways to decarbonise the planet.
If we can become the first place that climate and energy ministers and policymakers turn when they have a question they need answering, then we’ve cracked it.
Samsam: What is the one thing you wish everyone knew about the journey to Net Zero?
Lucy: When I bought my (very old) home a wise person said to me that you never really own a period property, you just look after it for the next generation. If we all understood that we are custodians of our planet in the same way then many of our conversations about net zero wouldn’t get mired in arguments about science, responsibilities, and financing…but then maybe we wouldn’t be in this crisis in the first place!
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