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In interview with…Dr. Brendan French, Energy Consumers Australia

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Ensuring that no one is left behind during the energy transition is crucial to creating a fair and inclusive energy system. There is a rise of renewable energy options and advancements in technology. This means customers are gaining more options and becoming more active participants in the energy market. Collaboration between utilities, governments, community organizations, and consumers is vital. Helping in developing and implementing these pathways to energy equity and a fair environment for the transition.

This month, we spoke to Dr. Brendan French, CEO of Energy Consumers Australia. He provided his thoughts on the role of utilities and customers in the energy transition. And spoke on how we can work together to pave an equitable map to net zero.

1. How should pricing evolve as the growth of CER contributes to zero marginal cost production?. 

Broadly, we would like to see stronger rewards provided to consumers who are willing and able to be flexible with their consumption and exports. High night-time feed-in tariffs can reward the use of batteries when the load is needed. Lower daytime consumption prices can allow those without solar to access cheap electricity during the day when solar is abundant.

This kind of pricing signal is not for everyone. Businesses should create simple, understandable bills for consumers. Coupled with consistent and fair pricing that provides them with certainty. But network tariffs should not limit the ability of customers to access these products if they would like them. It shouldn’t be a zero-sum game between simple and consistent retail bills and prices or network tariffs designed for consumer energy resources – why not have both? We look forward to seeing more innovative approaches.

2. What does good community engagement look like? 

Better engagement requires investment – of time as well as money. The aim of it should be to enable meaningful communication with communities that creates a shared vision for the future. Committing to early, inclusive and continuing engagement with consumers and communities that is built on trust means also ensuring that diverse consumer perspectives are heard. It also means not forgetting the small business community, who often get left out of consultation processes.

In December last year, we released the Energy Ready Toolkit. We funded and undertook a collaborative project with the University of Technology Sydney and the Community Power Agency. The toolkit is a first-of-its-kind free resource for Australian communities. It helps them prepare a plan for if the power goes out and ensure they remain energy resilient.

Communities developed the toolkit for communities, and their involvement was vital to its success. It’s a real gift for consumers with lived experience to share their knowledge and empower themselves to use their experience to help others. Consumer perspectives should be at the heart of any product or service designed for people.

Ultimately, we hope the Energy Ready Toolkit can encourage better collaboration and help create a ‘shared language’ between communities and distribution network service providers.

3. What would you say are the three main challenges the industry needs to overcome to ensure energy equity for their customers?

1. Avoid thinking about energy from a systems perspective. Systems are there to serve people, and not the other way around. Consumers should be at the heart of every energy system, product and service you design, otherwise they are simply not doing their job, however well engineered they may be.

2. Design for everyone. People are diverse and that’s one of the wonderful things about us. If you’re designing an energy product, service or system it needs to work for all customer needs. Considering the needs and challenges of diverse groups of people in design often results in additional benefits for everyone. Captions on videos, which were originally designed for people with hearing impairments, have been a great example of this – how many of us have been glad of them when we’re watching a video on our phone on the bus? Inclusion benefits society as a whole.

3. Adopt a “do-no-harm” approach. Ron Ben-David from Monash University recently wrote a really thought provoking piece of work on this, which I would encourage anyone in the industry to read. Frankly, in this day and age when so much of what we do relies on it, I’d like to see energy considered by the industry as a core human right and regulated as such.

4. What solutions do you propose would allow for a smooth transition and gain customer buy-in?

Social licence needs to be earned, it can’t be bought. Bringing consumers along on the journey is a crucial way to building it. Moreover, consumers will play an important role in whether they see themselves at the center of the energy transition or whether they feel the industry is doing something to them.

Consumers are bombarded with information about energy, most of which is no use to them, and it is causing them to switch off and disengage. Yet consumers who feel they are receiving good information are far more positive about the energy transition.

Consumers need information at the right time, in the right place and from sources they trust. I regret to inform you, much of the industry is not high on that list of trusted sources right now. In fact, our latest consumer research shows that consumer faith that the market is working in their best interests is continuing to fall. To address this need, we’d like to see a One Stop Shop for energy communications, information and advice for Australian energy consumers. There are many examples of One Stop Shops overseas and we think this is a great solution that would work over here and help consumers navigate the energy transition and benefit from it.

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You can also hear from Dr. Brendan French at our exhibition and summit next 7 – 8 May! Register free online for the exhibition and book your delegate pass. Hear from this month’s contributors and 100+ utilities experts. 

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