So Watt?

Join comedian and former Block contestant Andy Saunders on our new podcast So Watt? to discover everything that’s new in the world of energy, and what’s in it for you.

So Watt?

Join comedian and former Block contestant Andy Saunders on our new podcast So Watt? to discover everything that’s new in the world of energy, and what’s in it for you.


When was the last time you thought about where your energy comes from? Behind all of our appliances and devices is an entire network powering our lives, and that energy grid is changing, and fast.

So Watt? you may ask.

Join comedian, sustainability and renovation enthusiast (and former The Block contestant) Andy Saunders as he helps lift the veil on the complex world of energy; what’s coming, why you should care, and most importantly, what’s in it for you.

About Andy

You may recognise Andy as one half of ‘Andy and Deb’ – popular contestants during the 2019 season of The Block, returning for The Block All Stars in 2020.

Or maybe you have seen him performing his critically acclaimed comedy at a festival or show sometime over the last decade. Or perhaps, you are simply just like ‘Andy who?’

Well, let us introduce him.

Here he is below with his wife Deb.

Deb and Andy

They live in Wallabi on the mid-north coast of NSW, 92km south of Port Macquarie, with their four children.

They are passionate about sustainability and renovating, and operate a boutique holiday accommodation called Bask at Green Point.

And in addition to being the host of ‘So Watt?’, they are also currently appearing on TV screens now on another show called ‘Renovate or Rebuild’ on Nine Life.

Through six episodes, Andy will be your host on a journey through the world of energy from EVs to solar and batteries and online gaming!

So Watt? Trailer

The show that questions everything you thought you knew about energy, and explores the solutions that exist today. Hosted by comedian Andy Saunders, So Watt? will take you on a journey through the energy sector to find out what’s happening, why you should care, and most importantly, what’s in it for you.

So Watt? is brought to you by Origin, with production and scripting from the team at Lawson Media.

Episode transcript

So Watt – Trailer

Alina Dini: So I’m just accelerating now and as you can hear again it’s still really quiet.  I’m going to press the accelerator down a little bit faster so you can feel how zippy it is. And it’s just… it’s fun, you know? It feels like a roller coaster…

Andy Saunders (Host): When was the last time you thought about the energy you use? About the car you drive? And about all the appliances and gadgets we have in our homes? 

Jo Quirk: Oh, my partner’s really into the biggest telly on the planet. So we have a very large telly. 

Marc Niemes: I can tell you no kid appreciates how much energy they’re using if they’re sitting on a PlayStation or LED bulbs… it doesn’t mean anything to them because they’re not having to earn the income to pay for that

Andy Saunders (Host): G’Day, I’m Andy Saunders and this is So Watt? a podcast from Origin that questions everything you thought you knew about energy… and explores the solutions that exist today. 

Greg Jackson: Remember that we’re in a world of dramatic change… but if we get the renewable transition right, we could be at a world in 10 to 15 years, where we’ve eliminated the carbon impact.

Andy Saunders (Host): I’ll explore whether you should switch to an EV, get a battery for your home, and find out why energy companies are trying to pay you to turn off power. 

Matt Duesterberg: Last August… we saw some of the hottest temperatures on record… but what was crazy is that we were just not prepared as a grid.

Zack Fitz-Walter: Simply by providing that feedback… to turn off our appliances, or to save some energy, gives us this kind of goal or this challenge. And then to really reinforce that behavior by providing some kind of reward. It can motivate us to change our behaviour.

Andy Saunders (Host): We’re even going to speak to the father of photovoltaics (or solar as I like to call it)… 

Martin Green: Yeah… maybe modern photovoltaics, father of modern photovoltaics.

Dorota Bacal: Now when you’re producing the silicon solar panel, you reach the temperature range of 1000 degrees Celsius, that’s a lot of energy… This energy and this emissions are paid back within two years.

Andy Saunders (Host): We’ll learn how technology is making it easier for us to understand what we’re spending, what’s powering our homes and what it might look like in the future. 

Chau Le: And in that future… in my future, there would be electric and autonomous travel pods. You can tell that I’ve been watching too much Jetson when I was small…

Dom Pym: I actually think that everyone will be driving around in electric cars, everyone will have battery backup, and everybody will be using a solar or wind or some other form of…  renewable energy in the future. And so it’s just about the journey from here to there.

Andy Saunders (Host): So Watt launches on Wednesday, November 10th. Find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or visit originenergy.com.au/sowatt. That’s S-O-W-A-T-T.

Andy Saunders (ALT LINE): So Watt is available now, listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or visit originenergy.com.au/sowatt. 

So Watt? Episode 1 – Power To The People

Whether it’s shopping online, hailing a taxi, or booking a hotel, technology has completely transformed the way we purchase products, and access services. And it turns out, the same thing is happening in energy. A new breed of energy company is disrupting the industry, changing the way retailers operate, and empowering you to make smarter choices.

So Watt? is brought to you by Origin, with production and scripting from the team at Lawson Media.

Episode transcript

So Watt – Episode 1 – Power To The People

Andy Saunders (Host): G’Day I’m Andy Saunders and I’m a comedian….to some, and welcome to episode one of So Watt? – a podcast from Origin that questions everything you thought you knew about energy. My wife Deb and I are former contestants on The Block. That experience, as well as renovating a number of properties, having kids, running a small business and a busy home means we have little time for much else. Let alone understanding the complex world of energy – even though our house is jam packed full of it, pent up and let loose. But living a coastal life in Wallabi Point – on the New South Wales Mid-Coast, also means access to magnificent beaches. And I love to surf… 

Andy Saunders (Host): So when I’m out for a surf, I’ve often found myself thinking: I wished I could surf for a living and ‘I could do more, live more sustainably, at the very least know where the energy comes from that powers our lives.’ 

Andy Saunders (Host): So where does our energy come from? What can we expect in the future? How can we make smarter energy choices, and best of all, save money along the way? Throughout the series we’ll look at solar energy, electric vehicles, batteries for the home, virtual power plants, disruption and the customer experience, and even turn energy into a game. I’m determined to find out as much as I can, and I’ll take you along for the ride.

Andy Saunders (Host): So, where better to start understanding my own energy use than at home with Deb, because I think she knows everything.

Deb Saunders: Uh, okay. I’m probably not real up on that…

Andy Saunders (Host): Righto, that went well…show’s over…series done. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Deb and I are pretty much on the same page: a basic knowledge of our energy consumption but we do want to find ways to improve. 

Deb Saunders: Look, we have always thought about things like switching the lights off? We’re not doing that all the time. But it is, we’ve had the conversations definitely. But I think now as you know, we’re growing older and we’re learning a little bit more… about sustainability… So you know, we’re on that path. Definitely. We’re looking at switching out lights and things like that in our own home to reduce energy costs… And I think we’ve got a lot to learn. But yeah, we’re willing students. We want to learn more.

Andy Saunders (Host): Ohhh, she’s so gorgeous…

Andy Saunders (Host): So maybe the first step on this journey needs to be understanding how the energy grid that keeps our lights on actually works.  

Ariel Liebman: It’s actually gotten a lot more complicated to answer that question in the last 20 years than it used to be.

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Professor Ariel Liebman.  

Ariel Liebman: Director of the Monash Energy Institute, an energy climate nexus focused institute at Monash University. We’re cross-disciplinary, and I am a professor of sustainable energy systems in the Department of Data Science and AI and the Faculty of Information Technology.

Andy Saunders (Host): Professor Liebman is here to give an overview of Australia’s energy sector. Most of the population live on the East coast and are actually connected to what’s known as the National Electricity Market. 

Ariel Liebman: There’s the physical system that creates and generates the electricity and moves it around. And then there’s the market, as you call it, which is a complex mixture of agencies and companies, which both generate and or retail electricity. There is also the other energy grid that we often don’t think about so much, but is in the equation, and that’s the natural gas grid. Which is a smaller part of domestic electric energy use, but it’s still important, although it may decline in importance over the years as we switch towards renewable energy.

Andy Saunders (Host): Switching to renewable energy is actually a big deal for our energy market. We love renewables in Australia, but our grid, like many all over the world, was actually designed for more traditional sources. 

Ariel Liebman: Probably three types dominate in Australia, coal, gas, and hydro traditionally, and now of course, we’ve got a lot of large scale wind and solar…. And then once you’ve generated this energy you have to transport it to the consumers and that’s done through both high voltage, long distance transmission lines and lower voltage distribution networks.

Andy Saunders (Host): It helps to visualise what we’re talking about. Imagine a physical power plant, huge turbines spinning, which are generating electricity that is fed along power lines, or into distribution networks. But there are other options out there that many of us are familiar with. 

Ariel Liebman: The other one is the emergence of new technologies, such as primarily rooftop solar. And when you combine that with the discussion around the urgency of addressing climate change issues, consumers have also become much more engaged in both the issue and the ability to do something about that issue. Which mostly for most customers, is either putting rooftop solar on or signing up to a electricity plan that is something like a green power certified plan where they can be somewhat assured that their electricity is coming from renewable sources. 

Andy Saunders (Host): So we know that when we turn our lights on the power probably came from a gas, or coal-fired power plant. But increasingly the network is being powered by renewables – like solar, or wind, or even pumped hydro, which is a way of storing renewable electricity when it’s plentiful and using it later when demand is higher. The makeup of our energy grid is changing and we’ll explore that in more detail in a later episode. But there’s another change happening – and it’s being driven by tech.

Andy Saunders (Host): When companies like Uber and Amazon disrupted the taxi or shopping experience it was through technology. They transformed industries that weren’t really broken. Taxis always worked… but Uber changed our customer experience forever. So it seems only natural this would happen in the energy space.

Ariel Liebman: Yeah, well, definitely. And there’s two aspects to this. One of them is, is this this actually has been going on longer in Australia… So we have had a few rounds of innovative startups coming into the market, the latest crop, like Octopus, we do have similar ones, but they maybe not making as many inroads into the customer space. They’re probably the types that one would call aggregators, where they offer some technological components to their products.

Greg Jackson: Hi, I’m Greg Jackson, I’m the founder and chief executive of Octopus Energy.

Andy Saunders (Host): Octopus Energy is a startup that’s been making waves in the UK because of their focus on technology. 

Greg Jackson: We started in 2016. Really, to use technology to drive down the cost of energy for consumers, to make pricing more transparent, and to really see if we could make the transition to green energy faster and cheaper. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Greg isn’t your typical energy CEO whose been in the industry for decades and talks in complex acronyms… it turns out he’s a bit of a gamer. 

Greg Jackson: I tell you what, I’ve got a 14 year old son, and he can beat me at any game except Tetris… Last night, he and I were playing Tekken Six. Yes, on a retro arcade game that we’ve got in the house. And it was fantastic fun.

ANDY SAUNDERS: Ahhh… A man after my own heart. Turns out Greg doesn’t just love playing games; he started his career making video games.

Greg Jackson: You know, this was the day of the sort of eight bit home computers. And it was fascinating because, you know, I started as a sort of teenage sole programmer in a bedroom. And I think, you know, even then, what I saw was the emergence of more powerful computing, as we went from eight bit to 16 bit. As you went from being able to do stuff as a sort of one person, or small two person team, to really requiring big teams to create games. And I think, you know, I saw the degree of change, and that was back in the mid to late 80s. That was happening in the world of video games or home computing. You could just imagine where that was going to go exponentially with the world, which is why I decided I should go and get an education because I went to university and then because I think the entire prospect of this amount of change was both terrifying and thrilling. And we sit here today, you know, in the 2021, when you’ve got a phone in your pocket, which has got just in one app the entirety of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s vision of the future. Nevermind all the other stuff you can do.

Andy Saunders (Host): Greg’s not an energy CEO… well he is… but he isn’t… but he is… but he isn’t… Do you get where I’m going with this? And this is a trend we see amongst other disruptors. 

Greg Jackson: You know, when you look at the companies that have changed society, through technology, they don’t tend to have come from the sector they change. So you know, Uber wasn’t set up by cab drivers. You know, Amazon wasn’t set up by shopkeepers. And I think in our case, you know, I started life writing video games. And I think, you know, for me, technology’s always been really core to how I think about the world. I think the most important thing in the run up to this business was that in 2003, I started a business which ended up building enterprise software. We built large platforms for big organisations. And I think when we did that we really got a front seat ride, as different industries faced the technology disruption. And so when we sold that business, we kind of looked around the world and said, What’s the biggest sector where we can make the biggest difference through technology? Energy stuck out a mile, you know, customers are underserved, they’re overpaying. They spent half the time chasing around call centres that don’t want to help them. And then critically, it’s a sector which had held back the fight against climate change. So for a whole pile of reasons, we kind of thought this was, you know, our opportunity to make a big green dent in the universe.

Andy Saunders (Host): So Greg might not be a typical energy CEO, and Octopus is definitely not a regular energy company. In fact, you’d probably call it a tech company first. And the tech problem it decided to solve was energy, and specifically renewables. 

Greg Jackson: Government here in the UK, and many other countries had been subsidising renewable generation. And see, we’re beginning to see a reasonable amount of renewables on the grid but what you didn’t have was any real consumer understanding that this brought benefit. In fact, on consumers, all they saw was extra levies on their electricity bills to pay for these renewables. So I think at that time, and it was only a few years ago, but you know, there was a sense that green energy was expensive. It was kind of a luxury. And, you know, actually, it’s amazing how things have changed so quickly.  

Andy Saunders (Host): Octopus entered a UK market dominated by incumbents who did offer renewable sources, but Greg saw a lot more potential. He also realised there was no way Octopus could win a price war. But where they could win was customer service.

Greg Jackson: So it’s actually one of the inspirations for starting the business was the pain points I experienced as a customer of energy companies. And aside from pricing, which was a pain point I’d experienced, and that we read about what in the headlines, what you tend to find with energy companies is, customers only call when there’s an issue. But because companies are running all these different systems, you know, some of them 20 or 30 years old, not always properly connected with teams that are trained to handle one particular system. So you get handed from one team, to another, to another. Whenever there was an issue, the resolution of that was drawn out and painful. And you spend a long time on the phone with often brilliant people who were constrained by systems. Now, because we’re from a technology background, we set out from the beginning to create a single platform that covers every aspect of the customer’s experience with us, so that whatever they need solved, our team can help them.

Andy Saunders (Host): What really set the company apart was tech, after all Greg is far more likely to design an app than run a power plant. So rather than jumping onto one of the legacy platforms, Octopus developed its own customer service platform, called Kraken. That’s K-R-A-K-E-N, if you want to look it up, and it powers their whole business.

Greg Jackson: And what Kraken does is it runs the entire company, you know, from the bits that estimate how much energy energy everyone’s going to use, and work with generation, both our own and third point generation to make sure we’ve got that energy every moment of time, through to the bit that calculates how much everyone’s used and starts working out their bills… And so I think the first thing was, by having this kind of consolidated 21st century in the cloud platform built by us for energy, you make fewer mistakes, so customers don’t need to phone as often, if they do find they’ll get better service. And if they choose to contact us by any other medium than phone, they’ll get great service.

Andy Saunders (Host): Origin even noticed the huge potential of Octopus and Kraken, so they purchased a twenty per cent stake in the company, and soon Origin’s entire retail customer business will be run on the platform. It was clear that Kraken wasn’t a huge sea monster, but it was changing the UK energy market, and had potential to go global. I really wished it was the monster though…

Greg Jackson: When we were two or three years old, as a business, we kind of knew that in our technology platform Kraken, and our operating model and our vision for the future, we were sitting on something special. And yet here in the UK, the incumbent energy companies and indeed, around most of Europe, were fairly dismissive. Like so often in a sector that is ripe for disruption, the incumbents just don’t spot, you know that technology is going to give people the edge it does.

Andy Saunders (Host): If Kraken looks at my energy use data, finds me the cheapest way of powering my home, and provides me guilt free electricity by committing to renewables, then it’s fair to say Greg’s disrupted the energy sector.

Andy Saunders (Host): We know disruption has happened with taxis, and shopping, but let’s look a bit closer to home. What Octopus is doing in energy in the UK, is kind of familiar… and that’s because it’s happening here, down under… in banking?

Dom Pym: I’m Dom Pym, I’m probably most well known as co-founder of Up, which is Australia’s first digital bank, and now probably our most successful digital bank. So that’s, that’s what I do day to day, that’s my day job. But I also help other startup founders and get involved in the community and work primarily with FinTech businesses. And also within the sort of… the energy or save the planet type things… anything to do that’s alternative or interesting, that, you know, sort of looks generations ahead. I’m also interested in that sort of stuff as well.

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay…okay, seriously, imagine Dom’s job interview? They ask him; ‘Okay, what are you looking for in this role?’ He answers; ‘Well, anything that saves the planet! That’s alternative or interesting!! That looks generations ahead!!! Brilliant! 

Andy Saunders (Host): Dom, as his LinkedIn profile states, is an entrepreneur, technologist, innovator, investor and co-founder of the digital bank Up. Whereas my linkedin profile says “I am none of those things and far from it”. So Dom, what is Up? 

Dom Pym: Actually, Up was the first cloud hosted bank in Australia, it was also the first mobile only bank. So I guess it’s really what your definition of digital is, some people call them challenger banks. And then that can also encompass, you know, banks with branches and all that. So in terms of what it was, as I said, first mobile only bank, so you have to have a smartphone to access Up. And we’re also the first bank in Australia that you can download the app, and within a couple of minutes, you could literally have money in your account and be doing banking, you know, maybe buy a coffee or or whatever it is you want to do. And so that’s a bit of a game changer. Because before UP, it could take anywhere between two and 10 business days to set up a bank account, and to get a card and then activate your card and put it in your wallet, and all sorts of things. And you know, all of that just seemed a bit archaic, to us. And we really wanted to disrupt it and make it so that you can download the app and then instantly have a bank account and away you go. And so that’s really, when we talk about a digital bank, it runs on the cloud and the Google Cloud Platform is what we use. And it allows you to instantly activate one or more bank accounts. And so that, that’s really for us what the definition of digital means…

Andy Saunders (Host): With Up, Dom and his colleagues set out to disrupt traditional banking.

Dom Pym: So to be a disruptor. And to do something new and interesting, the bar is actually very high. The big four banks in Australia have amongst the best digital platforms and digital apps in the world, right?… And so for a new digital bank, to come into the market, there has to be some sort of reasonable value proposition. It can’t just be, it’s cheaper, or it’s quicker, or it’s easier, there’s got to be something compelling. Otherwise, why would people even try it?

Dom Pym: Customers don’t know what they want, like, particularly inside the energy sector. It’s a utility, right? And banking is somewhat a utility. So you get what you get and you don’t get upset. That’s how sort of most Aussie’’s would think about their utilities, right? I’ve got a water bill, and I pay it and I get water, I turn the tap on, that’s it, I turn the lights on, and then it works, you know… Most people won’t be thinking too hard about what sort of innovation can happen, but there’s this whole Silicon Valley influence of entrepreneurs and these entrepreneurs. This next generation of young entrepreneurs, that have grown up with technology, are basically looking to use technology to disrupt.

Dom Pym: I think it’s a perfect storm, you’ve got legacy industries that are dominated by a handful of players. And then you’ve got technology…

Andy Saunders (Host): So, the story of UP and of Octopus are starting to sound pretty familiar… 

Dom Pym: Accessibility of technology, the cost of implementation and maintenance of technology, the way that technology is disrupting those different industries, and the accessibility and usability from a consumer perspective, is what has sort of converged into this whole new economy… And what we found is that by creating an awesome user experience by creating an awesome brand, by having design embedded in everything we do, being honest, being transparent, publishing our roadmap publicly, for example…

Andy Saunders (Host): I’m pausing here to repeat those phrases: being honest, being transparent, publishing our roadmap publicly…remember, the person saying them is in banking. That’s not the kind of language you often hear from a bank. It’s usually, “Hi, how may I have your money?”

Dom Pym: if you bring all those things together, it’s the perfect storm, we’re seeing it in telecommunications, we’re seeing it in aerospace and space itself, we’re seeing it in internet technologies, we’re seeing it in banking, we’re seeing it in energy, we’re seeing it in consumer goods I mean, there’s pretty much not an industry that you can think of that is untouched by this sort of conversion of legacy businesses into modern technology businesses. And one way to sum it up is that there is no such thing as a legacy or traditional company anymore, every company is now a technology company. 

Andy Saunders (Host): You know when you notice a building that seems to have gone up overnight? Or a feature in the landscape that you didn’t see until someone pointed it out? I think that’s where I’m at. That’s what I’m feeling. At the start, I wanted to know where the electricity comes from when I switch a light on. But who would have thought the answer reveals that our world is undergoing such massive change?

Dom Pym: Yeah, for me the number one thing is awareness, right. So, before I started getting interested in this type of stuff, I had no real interest. Like I would get a bill once a quarter or once a month in my letterbox and probably put it in the bin, or the shredder, like I didn’t really look at it, direct debit, or whatever, I just sort of ignored it, I had no real interest in what my energy consumption was, or my carbon footprint was, or you know, whether I was taking it out of the grid or putting into the grid. And none of that was really interesting for me, once I started taking an interest in it, it just snowballs from there.

Greg Jackson: Remember that we’re in a world of dramatic change. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Here’s Greg Jackson again. 

Greg Jackson: Recognise the world in the next 15 or 20 years will be totally different… So think about the way the world is gonna change around you… but if we get the renewable transition right, we could be a world in 10 to 15 years, where we’ve eliminated the carbon impact. And at that point, it’s less about energy efficiency, and about just what do you want to spend money on to make for a more comfortable, enjoyable life. The critical bit to that is making sure that we do get to the zero carbon system. I think it is an incredibly exciting juncture, where, you know, we can realistically start dreaming of a world of zero carbon, zero guilt, electricity. 

Andy Saunders (Host): So, we’ve taken a few steps on this path to exploring the complex world of energy. We’ve learned how energy is generated and distributed to homes, but also that technological disruption is driving change for the better. 

Ariel Liebman: So we’re in an unprecedented period in history in fact of technological change. When we’re in it, it doesn’t feel as fast, but it’s much faster than the Industrial Revolution took to happen and the PC revolution or the you know, the 80s, where suddenly you could actually afford a computer on your desk. We think that’s normal now, but it wasn’t that normal. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Remember when Dom said he sought out interesting things that look generations ahead to help save the planet…well, if none of that resonates with you – listen in to this next bit. 

Dom Pym: I’ve got young kids, and so I just care about the future, I just want them to live in a world that is awesome, you know, and that is sustainable, and that, that their kids, you know, will have a future. And I think that we easily get into a debate… about fossil fuels or about sustainable forestry or, you know, whatever it is. I’m not political, like I’m not that interested in having the debate. I just try for me, and my immediate family and my immediate friends and my colleagues to just help make a difference where we can. 

Andy Saunders (Host): All of this disruption across our economy is really offering us choice. So whether it’s grabbing a taxi, choosing a bank, or deciding our energy provider, technology is giving power back to us, the consumers. Companies need to be focused on innovation if they want to succeed in the new economy, and all of this tech is just enabling us to make better, smarter choices.

Andy Saunders (Host): Perhaps Deb and I can do a little bit more than change the lightbulbs or look at installing solar panels. Those are important steps, but it feels like there’s more we can do…Let’s see what Deb has to say, ‘cause she is my little self help guru. I call her this because all of our conversations are about improving me as a person.

Deb Saunders: Our 12-year-old, about to turn 12-year-old son has been pestering us to buy an electric vehicle for years, he loves the Tesla’s and he’s really, really interested in all of that sort of thing. So probably the most I know about that is through him and what he’s told me.

Andy Saunders (Host): Get ready for your EV smile Deb, Because In episode two of So Watt? – we’re in high pursuit of an electric vehicle and the smile that happens when you drive one. 

Alina Dini: It’s so smooth and quiet and peaceful when I drive, that I find myself feeling more relaxed sometimes in my car than in my house.

Andy Saunders (Host): So Watt? is the show that questions everything you thought you knew about energy and it’s brought to you by Origin. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Production and scripting by the team at Lawson Media.

Andy Saunders (Host): If you’re keen to know more about Origin’s approach to customer experience – I’ve left a great blog post in the episode show notes.  

Andy Saunders (Host): You can learn more about the podcast and listen to other episodes at originenergy.com.au/sowatt, or just hit subscribe in the podcast app you’re in right now.
Andy Saunders (Host): I’m Andy Saunders, and I can’t wait to speak to you next time.

So Watt? Episode 2 – That EV Smile

Electric Vehicles have been around for more than one hundred years – but new battery technology, and cheaper manufacturing costs, mean we’ve seen a resurgence in electric cars, and buying an EV is now a possibility for many people. But what will it take to see EVs go mainstream, and should you consider buying one?

So Watt? is brought to you by Origin, with production and scripting from the team at Lawson Media.

Episode transcript

So Watt – Episode 2 – That EV Smile

Alina Dini: So I’m just accelerating now and as you can hear again it’s still really quiet. I’m going to press the accelerator down a little bit faster so you can feel how zippy it is. And it’s just, it’s fun, you know? It feels like a roller coaster. And when I take people for test drives and give them the chance to put their foot on the accelerator, I am never without a smile. In fact they call it an EV smile.

Andy Saunders (Host): An EV smile! Woah – I want one of them. I want an electric vehicle smile! Hi, it’s Andy Saunders here again and this is So Watt? – a podcast from Origin that questions everything you thought you knew about energy… and in this episode, I’m going car shopping.

Andy Saunders (Host): Now, in the past I might have gone looking for a big thirsty monster that chews up the highway. A V8 muscle car with too much torque, rocker rollers, five on the floor, 4 exhausts, and so on… but that’s not gonna get me an EV smile. That’s just gonna get me arrested…. and I don’t want to get arrested… again.

Andy Saunders (Host): So, in this episode I’m going to get the facts about electric vehicles. Look, I’m just going to call them EV’s from now on. EV’s have been around for more than a hundred years now, but these days batteries are much more advanced and cheaper to make, which means more people are jumping on the EV bandwagon. Or should I say, into an EV station wagon. First off, what is an EV and how does it differ from a vehicle with an internal combustion engine? 

Scott Nargar: An EV is a lot different to an internal combustion engine that stores the petrol on the back of the vehicle and then powers an internal combustion car. With an EV we have a large battery in the vehicles and the car goes through and pulls that energy from the battery and it runs an electric motor which then propels the vehicle up a hill or, around the, around the city streets…

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Scott Nargar – from Hyundai Australia.

Scott Nargar: I’m the Senior Manager of Future Mobility and Government Affairs at Hyundai Motor Company Australia.

Andy Saunders (Host): Gotcha, sounds exciting.

Scott Nargar: So we go from having a couple of thousand moving parts in an internal combustion engine to having about four to six moving parts in electric vehicle. So there’s a lot less servicing maintenance, there’s zero noise, so it is a whole different driving experience but not dissimilar to what you’re doing today when you’re driving a normal car around the streets. 

Andy Saunders (Host): I just wanted Scott to give us an introduction into what an EV is – we’ll come back to him later on. We now know EV’s are quiet and run by a battery instead of an internal combustion engine. But there’s a lot more to find out, a lot more questions that I want answers to. Lucky for me there’s a company dedicated to answering questions that prospective EV owners, like me, might have.  

Alina Dini: My name is Alina Dini, I am a sustainability and energy professional. I work as Founder and CEO of Whirl, which is a company that is committed to making electric cars accessible to everyone.

Andy Saunders (Host): Before starting her company Whirl, Alina was the 109th person to be employed at Tesla in Silicon Valley, California. And yes Tesla as in Elon Musk. For those that do not know, Elon Musk is not an aftershave, he is a man, a brilliant man…I mean, we have to ask don’t we, what was it like working with the main man Elon? 

Alina Dini: Yeah. Look, Elon is a personality. Absolutely. But he’s also the most brilliant person I’ve ever come in contact with. I think many people would agree. So you know, with that kind of genius comes things that you have to adjust to. But I found him to always be very polite and friendly to me, and I have fond memories of my time working at the company, including the time I sat alongside him.

Andy Saunders (Host): After her time at Tesla taking people like Arnold Schwartzenegger for test drives, Alina moved to Queensland with her Aussie husband and banged out a PHD on clean technology customer experience, with a focus on electric cars. To be fair though, who wouldn’t do this. Any questions I have about EV ownership in Oz, this CEO will set me straight. In fact, one thing I wanna know is how far we can drive an EV before the battery dies and we’re left stranded by the side of the road looking like a galah, and we are about to start surviving on our own, Tom Hanks style in Cast Away. Wilson!

Alina Dini: Range is often one of the biggest issues that comes up when you talk about EV ownership. So once you’ve committed to owning one, you think, Okay, I have this limited range battery, I know what that means, because I have a mobile phone and a laptop. And I’ve experienced that sort of sensation of almost being out of charge before. You know the anxiety is overwhelming, you can’t possibly put that in my car. But the reality is that we have very little, as a people, we have very little consciousness of how much driving we actually do on a daily basis…

Alina Dini: And I can tell you that anytime I’ve ever gone on a road trip I’ve planned ahead. It doesn’t matter whether I’m driving an EV or a petrol car. I always know where I’m going to take a break roughly, because I want to go somewhere that’s convenient to me and I usually plan ahead by packing the things I might need. So in the case of being an EV driver, I would pack my travel charge cable just as a backup in case one of those public charging stations is occupied or inoperable.

Andy Saunders (Host): To be fair though, when I think about my daily use, it’s usually just around town – picking up the kids, dropping the kids off, picking the kids back up, dropping the kids off again. Picking them up again. Dropping them… Look, I really wished they would start walking around the house by themselves, they are teenagers after all. Lazy buggers. Actually I think they’ve gotta start taking the bus and ride their bikes for once, but the hallways are way too narrow! Anyway, I don’t really do that many long haul road trips. But I do live in a regional area…

Alina Dini: And I think what’s terrific about Australia is, Australia really cares about its regional residents. So we’re seeing a lot of infrastructure come into some of those smaller cities and thoroughfares to them to accommodate electric vehicle motoring through those locations, which is fantastic. The other thing that’s really important to note is that the electricity infrastructure that you need to own and operate an EV already exists. So all it’s a matter of doing is tapping into that and making sure you have access… by and large, the electricity is there, so it’s just a matter of accessing it. And a third point I’ll make is that we’re, as a society moving on from this sort of one size fits all solution to whatever we do. What’s great about an EV is whether you are, you know, at a lower affordability range, and you can only accommodate a secondhand car with a reduced range, that’s an option for you. Or if you prefer a longer range vehicle, and you have the ability to purchase one that accommodates that bigger battery that’s available to you. So… it’s no longer a one size fits all petrol engine car that you must drive, but there are lots and lots of products and ways to access them that can enable you to become an electric vehicle motorist, if you choose.

Alina Dini: My advice is find someone who, who owns one. So you might have a friend or a colleague or a neighbor. If you don’t, you can visit our website and talk to electric vehicle owners who are available for a virtual chat. Notwithstanding that, there are lots of YouTube videos, and podcasts, and case studies available online you can read through and understand what the ownership experience is like. And just really, think through the mechanics of what the lifestyle change might mean for you. Because once you do, you realize that it’s actually not a huge shift. And there’s a lot more to be gained from being an electric vehicle owner than what is perceived to be an impediment. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay, Alina’s given me a good place to start: think about my driving habits, what’s my average range distance, find someone to hit up for a test drive. But even if I do all of this I still want to be sure that there’s decent infrastructure out there. Places for me to charge. It’s not like I notice EV charging stations in the same way I notice petrol stations, why is that?  

Doug McNamee: Power really is everywhere. And there’s really no reason why you can’t charge an EV anywhere you like.

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Doug McNamee. Doug is the founder and CEO of JOLT Charge.

Doug McNamee: JOLT is an Australian chargepoint operator. We are an urban fast-charging network, which operates currently the largest fast charging network in South Australia. And we’re building over 500 chargers in Sydney, in partnership with Ausgrid.

Andy Saunders (Host): Doug started JOLT after looking for EV charging stations close to his apartment in Sydney and finding none. Knowing that most people live along our eastern coastline within forty kilometres of major cities, he then discovered that 85% of the trips urban dwellers make, are less than twenty kilometres from their home. But, there were very few urban EV charge stations. 

Doug McNamee: Like everybody, right, I am a consumer first. And so thinking about my own consumption needs identified a gap in the market from a supply side. And so then started thinking about, well, what type of solution would I potentially need as as a driver and as a customer, and so from there, built on… various business plans and the like, to found the company whilst I was working my old job and, and started, you know, thinking about it more deeply from there. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Doug saw a gap in the market which he filled, by giving away EV charging for free. You know my favourite anything starts with free.

Doug McNamee: We give out seven kilowatt hours per person, per day, which is about 45 kilometres of range. So that’s what we offer for free. So after which time, you can buy energy. So depending on your consumption needs, you may buy more on a weekend, or you may be fine with the free charge, it really just depends on how you’re, you’re using your car and what your use case is. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Eventually, JOLT aims to have 5,000 EV Chargers operating in urban environments. 

Doug McNamee: Yeah, it’s a big number… But, you know, Australia needs over 35,000 DC fast chargers to reach our targets that we’ve set for 2030…. Our chargers are fast chargers, too, right? So the average charge time on our network is, I think it’s 19 minutes or something like that. So we’re not looking for, you know, somebody to come and spend 15 hours at one of our sites. So being able to access it conveniently is a really critical piece of that.

Doug McNamee: Now we’re seeing that… dramatic growth in the number of EVs that are arriving in Australia on a monthly basis. And as a result, you know, the demand for convenient fast charging is is shifted. So, you know, I think understanding, you know, the difference between the charging speeds and their locations is probably something that is starting to become apparent… 

Andy Saunders (Host): Yeah, I’m always worried my phone is going to run out of juice, or how fast I can charge it. So it’s only natural I think about how fast or slow or convenient it might be to charge my EV.  

Doug McNamee: The charging landscape is divided into three… levels… level one, which is essentially the speed that you would charge your car at home. And so that can be AC charging, that ranges from one kilowatt, you know, maybe through to about seven kilowatt hours. The charging speeds that you’ll get on that could be, again, depending on the size of your battery, but it might be eight hours through to maybe 12 or 15 hours from zero to 100. You then move into what they call level two. So level two charging is, you know, traditionally also being called destination charging. And that’s these faster AC charging speeds… And again, depending on the type of car you’ve got, you will have, you know, charging speeds that will vary from, you know, maybe four or five hours through to eight hours or something like that. 

Andy Saunders (Host): AC, that’s the kind of power you get from a socket at home. Eight to 10 hours of charging is fine and all, but before you get too thunderstruck by what’s happening here, the real key to unlocking that highway to hell, is what’s called DC – or direct current.

Doug McNamee: Which is when we start and see a more efficient transfer of electrons. So the grid runs on AC, the batteries in the car all run on DC. So when you start and get to those DC fast charging levels, you start and have energy, which is coming into the battery, which is already in DC… it’s been inverted, and it’s now DC. DC then allows you to increase the speed of the charge. So you see charging in what we call DC level three, or fast charging, starting at 25 kilowatts, and it goes up to 350 kilowatts, you know, 350 I think they’re calling that ultra fast charging, and then you’ve got… fast charging and DC fast and a whole bunch of different names that kind of fall into that. But I think, more broadly speaking, that division between AC and DC tends to be where we start and see that step change into fast. And that allows the car to generally take the energy more efficiently because it doesn’t have to rely on the inverter which is already in the car.

Andy Saunders (Host): That charging landscape relies on fast charging, but where are the EV charging stations? Why aren’t I seeing them? Am I blind to EV stations? Do I have EV station phobia? Please Doug, tell me.

Doug McNamee: Everybody lives and uses their time in different ways, a big part of what we do at JOLT is optimise for people’s time. So if you are into exercise, you might be using our charges that are adjacent to a gym or one that’s at a pool. If you are a footy fan, you might be using the ones that we’ve got at footy ovals, if you like to surf, you might be using our beach chargers. What we have is, I guess, a large network that we’re building that is going to cater for a very large percentage of the population. And so we’re finding that, you know, people optimise for what they want to do with their time, and that’s an optimum location for them to charge.

Doug McNamee: I got an email from one of our happy clients, customers I should say, from our brand new charger in Mona Vale, which is adjacent to their favourite sushi restaurant. So they love that. And that’s like the optimum, you know, set-up for their lifestyle and what they want to do.

Andy Saunders (Host): No wonder I wasn’t noticing EV stations like I do petrol stations. They’re all at footy ovals, gyms and sushi bars!! I think part of the evolution with the idea of potential EV ownership is about matching behaviour with needs. It feels like we’ve been doing things around the wrong way, know what I mean?  We used to drive those gas guzzlers, running on empty, pulling off the highway and limping into the petrol station. But with EV’s we have the fuel in the form of charging stations, located at places we like to go!! So they’re coming to us instead of us going to them! I like that!

Doug McNamee: I guess as a general rule of thumb, we like, you know, sites that can be accessed 24/7, have safe locations for people to be able to charge, you know, lighting, things like that. A lot of those are things that we can build in if they’re not already there. But it’s about creating a user experience that… allows people to spend their time how they want to spend. And I guess that’s one of the biggest benefits of EV charging over, you know, other propulsion mechanisms is that power really is everywhere.

Andy Saunders (Host): And there should be no reason you can’t charge an EV anywhere you like. 

Doug McNamee: It really comes down to what people do with their car and how they think about it. But at the end of the day, you know, understanding what you use your car for and what’s that purchase actually for I think is going to be the key to understand what would be best for you.

Doug McNamee: That process can unlock your perception about, you know, what you need your car for, and how you need your car, and then it gives you, like, the freedom to kind of think differently.

Andy Saunders (Host): Unlocking my perception – the freedom to think differently – wow…Okay,  so that’s the urban environment taken care of, and it’s great to know what’s coming. But I don’t live in the city. In fact I live hours out of it, and I don’t fall into that 85% of people that live within 45 minutes of the CBD. So if I’m going to unlock my perception and think differently I need to know the experience of an EV owner living regionally, remote, out in the sticks… And I don’t think they’re gonna be so easy to find. 

Tim Devereaux: I’m Tim Devereaux – live in Harvey, Western Australia.

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay, that was a fair bit easier than expected. 

Tim Devereaux: I’m early 60s and retired and enjoy doing things for the community… and interested in sustainable energy and electric cars.

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay mate, don’t rub it in. Tim lives in Harvey, a little town of a few thousand people, smack bang between Perth and Margaret River.

Tim Devereaux: Oh, it’s a great little community minded town, population actually in the town is about 6000 people. But it’s spread over a big area taking in quite a few other towns… Very good access to Perth, it’s about 150 kilometers to Perth.

Andy Saunders (Host): Tim, his wife and family landed here a few decades ago. He’s a pretty knockabout bloke. He’s been a plumber, dairy farmer, worked in mining and ran his own home maintenance business. And, like a lot of us, he always thought he could live a little more sustainably. 

Tim Devereaux: My parents have always been very conscious of the resources and what we have in the world. And my… brother studied environmental science. So he always was (a) passionate carer for the environment. And so I guess a bit of that rubbed off on me. And then, in more recent years, I looked at solar power and conserving energy and reducing our reliance on coal, and looked at it for many years. But then about seven years ago, I put solar power on my house, and started to get a bit more involved and making more effort, I guess, towards cutting my reliance on fossil fuels.

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay, so Tim had an interest in renewable energy and sustainability. He threw a couple of solar panels on the roof, maybe had a compost bin out the back. A lot of us probably tick those boxes. But still, it’s a massive leap to go from solar panels to jumping behind the wheel of an EV, isn’t it?

Tim Devereaux: I researched for six or 12 months… and I finally settled on a Hyundai Kona electric… Because living in the country, I wanted a reasonable range. And although it was four times more than I’ve ever spent on a car before… I worked out that I would save approximately $30 to $35,000 in fuel over a 10 year period, traveling about 30,000 kilometers a year. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay, so that’s like putting eight to ten dollars back into your bank for 3,650 consecutive days…or skimping on those lattes and choccy croissants…

Tim Devereaux: So I researched it for six or 12 months and then went ahead and purchased one and never looked back. I love it.

Andy Saunders (Host): ‘course you did. But do you get the range? 

Tim Devereaux: I can travel about 400 kilometers, doing 110 at highway speeds, slower speeds, you can do 550 kilometers on a charge. So for me, I can go to Perth for a weekend, not have to worry about charging, come home and then plug it into my solar power and charge it and I haven’t stressed about it. There’s no range anxiety, it just works. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Now I know there’s EV’s that have less range, that offer about three hundred k’s on one charge but still when we go on a road trip in petrol cars we pull over for a pit stop, grab a bite, stretch the legs. Yeah okay, so when EV drivers do that, they plug in – top up  and tune out. Okay, alright, now I think I am getting it.

Tim Devereaux: People just have got this mindset of they’ve got to get there in a hurry. And we’ve actually quite enjoyed this stopping and taking time for lunch and having a look around a town.

Andy Saunders (Host): Depending on the town though… I think it is a mindset thing. In fact it’s starting to feel pretty zen if you ask me. But, I found out Tim’s Hyundai Kona cost him about $65,000, which isn’t cost effective for most of us. It’s about four times more than he ever spent on a car, but the thing is, he knows it’s going to pay off. After ten years he’ll have saved upward of $35,000, if not more, because his EV hasn’t guzzled 25 – 30 thousand litres in petrol. This mindset thing, it’s about the future being affected by the present – and, there are cheaper EV’s are out there with more coming down the track. Failing that, we need to start investing in very long extension cords.

Tim Devereaux: If you can afford it, do it. I think one area where people would really benefit are people who are retiring… putting money into an EV is a really good investment. Because you’re paying not just for the EV but reducing your costs into the future once you’re retired. 

Tim Devereaux: I’ve got a lot of my friends who drive big four wheel drives, still guzzle diesel fuel and regularly joke with me about it. Several of my neighbors and friends ribbed me about my solar power, saying that I wasn’t contributing to the poles and wires down the street. But now several of them have gone out and got bigger systems than I have, and are very happy with their systems and are proud to show me their phones and what their system is currently producing. So I think the fact that one person does it – it rubs off… and people see that it works, they’re more happy to take it on board, because someone else has already tried it and taken the risk. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Unlike me, ever, Tim’s done his homework. He’s researched his driving habits, took a risk and it’s already paying off. Let’s swing back to Scott. Remember him from the start? 

Scott Nargar: What are you actually driving each day and could you live with a battery that’s a bit smaller?… So understand what your driving requirements are and choose a battery that suits that. Yes, you will do longer trips a couple of times a year when we, we can get out of the house and explore Australia after COVID. But we can save a whole lot of money between that by buying a battery or a car that suits our needs…

Scott Nargar: With Hyundai in Australia, we have hybrid vehicles on the road, plug-in hybrid vehicles, or full battery electric vehicles and a couple of models of those, and we’ve got a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on the road today as well as our normal complement of internal combustion… As global emission regulations starts to impact around the world and as we see countries especially in Europe looking to ban the sale of internal combustion from 2025, 2030, 2035 as a global car manufacturer, we need to be prepared to have vehicles that go into every market in the world and meet those emission regulations or internal combustion bans so we’re working very hard to deploy a range of zero emission vehicles being electric and hydrogen fuel cell around the world now, and we’re doing that here in Australia with a number of models. 

Scott Nargar: We’ve got EV’s on the road now, but the Ionic five and the cars that have come down the track after this one are what we really need to compete with internal combustion today and then enhance that experience and make it better. 

Andy Saunders (Host): In the past, many EVs were actually just modified versions of cars built to have an engine. They weren’t designed to be filled with batteries so they didn’t make the best use of space. However, things are changing.

Scott Nargar: We are moving to a vehicle that has got a dedicated platform and in Hyundai we call that the E-global modular platform. So that’s a platform that will be used by Hyundai and we also own Genesis and Kia. So there’ll be a number of vehicles that run that platform, it will have an 800 volt battery… 350 kilowatts of energy that will be able to go into it… so we can charge a vehicle from 10% to 80% in about 18 minutes.

Scott Nargar: Every five minutes you charge is about 100 kilometres of range… far different to what we’re seeing today with electric vehicles that can take up to 45 plus minutes to fully charge one of the high voltage batteries today on a charger, so this really moves to the fastest chargers available in the world and the fastest intake of energy into a battery of any cars in the world. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Having a car designed from the ground up to be electric – offers huge advantages. Not just to the functionality of the vehicle – but also to the user experience! 

Scott Nargar: So it is a really phenomenal experience. And we’re gonna see that from a number of manufacturers as well, you know, we’re going to have some great cars here, we’re doing very well against our competitors. Right now we’ve got you know, the next generation, actually, I wouldn’t even say the next generation, I’d say we’ve skipped a generation going from what we’ve got now to where we’re heading, the technology inside the vehicle is, is just phenomenal what it can do and what it achieves. And the comfort, the practicality it’s like sitting in a – in an armchair in your house. 

Scott Nargar: Once every couple of years, while judging that a car would come along, you’d say yep, this is a game changer now. I wouldn’t hesitate spending my own money on a car… and that’s a choice that people need to make themselves… With any EV, whether it’s ours or Nissans, or Tesla’s or MG’s. Go into a dealership, drive one, because what we find is most people that put their backsides into an electric vehicle, don’t want to get out of it. If they can live with the range of that particular vehicle, they’re driving and it meets their needs, then yeah, you are the you’ve made a decision that this is going to change the way you do things. You don’t need to go to a service station, in fact, your home becomes a service station, you can charge the vehicle up in the garage, you can use off peak energy, if you’ve got solar, you can charge the car through solar, a lot of manufacturers are moving to technology called Vehicle to Grid. So we’ve got Vehicle to Load working to power devices and things off the vehicle. But in the future, we’ll have it where you can power the house. 

Andy Saunders (Host): A couple of phrases jump out at me: Vehicle to Load; that means the stored energy in your EV battery being used to charge appliances like camping gear, electric bikes, coffee machines. The other was Vehicle to Grid – some Energy Operators also call it Smart Charging. Now imagine EV ownership is booming, and all these EV drivers come home after work and plug their cars into the grid at the same time. Energy consumption is peaking out. So, to combat that, EV’s will have visibility to the energy grid. Energy operators will be able to see when they’re plugged in. Now to help explain Vehicle to Grid or Smart Charging further I need to go ‘Full Jetson!’ or get my Tron on.

Chau Le: Hi, I’m Chau Le. And I’m the General Manager of Corporate Strategy and E-mobility at Origin Energy.

Chau Le: When we reach mass adoption of EV we might see a lot of EV’s plugged into the grid at the same time… and this coincides with the peak period for the energy markets as well as the wholesale network because that’s the period where your household energy consumption is also at its peak. So that’s definitely the scenario that both energy retailers as well as the distribution network are trying to avoid.

Chau Le: So it’s the ability to manage the charging of these EV’s to push it away from the peak periods in the wholesale energy markets and the constraint on the grid, push it away from that peak evening period into the midnight off peak period. And then more importantly into the midday period where there is excess solar in the energy system. 

Chau Le: So having a very flexible EV load that can be turned on when there is this excess renewable energy and soak that up, will add value to customers’ solar system, because they’re not being curtailed. They’re actually using all of that excess energy to power their car basically for free. 

Andy Saunders (Host): And then, in the future, as Scott says, we’ll be using our EVs to power our homes.

Chau Le: That would be kind of the next evolution of smart charging, that we want to to really tackle is imagine like your car battery, acting as Tesla powerwall. And soaking up the solar energy that you would have had to export back into the grid or worst case being curtailed. Soaking that up and then in the evening peak period, being used to power your fridge, your aircon, your dishwasher, and basically, you’re getting energy for your car and your house for free. That would be kind of Nirvana.

Andy Saunders (Host): Thanks Chau, I can always rely on you to go ‘Full Jetson’…

Chau Le: I’ve gone full Jetsons…

Chau Le: I haven’t spoken about my Jetson vision publicly so it’s been really good to have that conversation.

Andy Saunders (Host): Back on earth now, picking up with Scott…

Scott Nargar: So you can sell energy back to the grid, or use energy from the car that you’ve picked up elsewhere in the network, and you power your house with that at night. That’s really the big game changers. And what it does for people like Origin, and other energy producers around Australia, it actually helps balance out the grid. So if we can help absorb energy from the grid, when there’s a lot of excessive wind and solar, the cars can soak up that energy. And then at night, when everyone’s got the TVs, the heaters and the microwave on, the oven going. The kids have got all the TVs going with their Xboxes the cars can then dispense energy back in the grid and help maintain that frequency in the grid. The cars enable better performance of the grid. And that’s what everyone’s looking for with EV’s. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Sometimes we don’t even know what we’re looking for but it’s staring us in the face. Like my mum used to when I was naughty, in other words, she stared at me constantly.

Scott Nargar: We need to make cars safer for the environment. And this is where zero emission vehicles come into it. And the technology that’s here now is as practical and as durable as internal combustion technology. In fact, in a lot of cases better. And what’s coming in the next five to 10 years is just the next level beyond that, they’ll become more efficient, they’ll charge faster, the cars will perform much better than that, then internal combustion and they do that now. It’s just mind boggling to know what our engineers are working on, what other engineers are working on around the world and other factories and competitions a great, great way to innovate, you know.

Scott Nargar: So there’s a number of different manufacturers doing a great job here in Australia, we just want the whole nation to step up and look at what’s happening. If it’s happening in Germany and America and the UK and Italy, Spain, you know, some of the biggest countries in the world. They’re already starting the transition, started it many many years ago. Let’s just look at what’s happening and jump on board.

Scott Nargar: We’ve got great resources, why not use our great renewable resources to power these vehicles of the future. I keep saying vehicles of the future, they’re the vehicles of today.

Andy Saunders (Host): So imagine you’ve done your research. Like our mate Tim over in W.A. You understand your driving needs. You keep a log book for a month and estimate how much you spend on petrol every year. And the outlay for an EV? Might be more money than you’ve spent on any car before, but from day one, instead of depreciating, this EV is saving you money into the future. You’ve looked at EV charging infrastructure, it’s there already and more EV stations are rolling out every day. Range anxiety is a thing of the past. Occasional road trip’s are not a problem. The power is there. Unlock perception. Plug in. Recharge. Yep, I know what Alina means, about that EV smile, I thought my fuel fumed smile was good but this is great.

Andy Saunders (Host): In the next episode of So Watt?, what if energy was all a game? Would you turn off your appliances if it meant you could get some free cash, or even win a car? Yes Please.

Matt Duesterberg: And so we made an app to really get consumers to change their behaviour to create energy reductions… We were seeing Uber democratising taxi service across the world, Airbnb democratising hotels or lodging across the world. Why couldn’t we do the exact same with energy?

Andy Saunders (Host): Join us next week for episode three.

Andy Saunders (Host): So Watt is the show that questions everything you thought you knew about energy and it’s brought to you by Origin. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Production and scripting by the team at Lawson Media.

Andy Saunders (Host): If you’re keen to know more about Origin’s approach to powering the EV space – check out some of the resources I’ve left in the episode show notes.  

Andy Saunders (Host): You can also learn more about the podcast and listen to other episodes at originenergy.com.au/sowatt, or just hit subscribe in the podcast app you’re in right now.
Andy Saunders (Host): I’ve been Andy Saunders, ‘I’ll be back’ in the next episode.

So Watt? Episode 3 – It’s All A Game

Imagine if your energy provider asked you to use less electricity? In fact, to shut down – switch off – unplug. And if you did, just for an hour, they’d reward you. Would you think, what’s the catch?

So Watt? is brought to you by Origin, with production and scripting from the team at Lawson Media.

Episode transcript

So Watt – Episode 3 – It’s All A Game

Andy Saunders (Host): Imagine if your energy provider asked you to use less electricity? In fact, to shut down – switch off – unplug. And if you did, for just an hour, they’d pay you. Would you think, what’s the catch? I know I would. 

Jo Quirk: Well, the first thing was that you get paid to save energy. So it’s kind of (a) win win. And the more I looked into it, I thought it was too good to be true, but it’s true. 

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Jo Quirk, she’s an Origin customer using Spike. Spike is a reward program that encourages customers to help reduce the load on the energy grid by switching off their appliances, lights and anything else that chews through the juice.   

Jo Quirk: And the more I looked into it, it’s also got some… parts to it where you get higher rewards if you meet certain targets. So it makes you look at the results. Have the results come in yet? We’d always keep saying to each other: ‘We got the results yet?’ So it takes like, about a day to get the results in. And yeah, it just felt like this competition we’re having with ourselves to win. 

Andy Saunders (Host): And what does Jo win? Stick around to find out. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Hi, it’s Andy Saunders here again and this is So Watt? – a podcast from Origin that questions everything you thought you knew about energy and explores the solutions that exist today. And in this episode, an episode I am very excited about, we blow your mind with the concept of energy companies paying you to NOT use their power! 

Andy Saunders (Host): You’ll hear from Jo again, after she finishes counting her money, but right now I’m going to introduce you to episode three and the concept of gamification.

Zac Fitz-Walter: So gamification is the application of game design elements to non game contexts. Gamification has its roots in video games, the idea is that video games can be really engaging. 

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Zac Fitz-Walter, he’s a gamification designer and educator. In his time as an educator and consultant he’s seen games evolve away from the screen and out into the real world. And I’m not talking about games like red rover, cross over, or leap frog.

Zac Fitz-Walter: There’s this idea that if games can be so engaging, if games like World of Warcraft, and if games like Pokemon Go can be so engaging, then how can we take these engaging elements and apply it to non game activities to make them more engaging as well? 

Zac Fitz-Walter: So one of my favorite examples is Zombies Run. It’s an application, which essentially adds a zombie apocalypse narrative to your running experience.

Andy Saunders (Host): About 70% of Australians are considered to be gamers, whether they know it or not. Whether you crush plenty of candy on your phone, race luxury cars from your couch, or are motivated to run faster because of a zombie apocalypse like Zac is, then you’re a gamer.

Zac Fitz-Walter: The way it works is you go out, you run, you put your headphones in, and you listen to a narrative unfold, about a zombie apocalypse. But then sometimes during your run, you might hear zombies start to breathe down the back of your neck. And at that point, you then have to speed up, run faster, otherwise the zombies get you and all the things you’ve collected in the game. So that one’s really exciting, and quite a different example of gamification being used effectively, and that that application alone has had over 4 million downloads, there’s been 29 million kilometers run and 3.7 million zombie chases out there.

Andy Saunders (Host): If it takes a zombie horde to motivate some to change behaviour… 

Zac Fitz-Walter: So gamification design falls under the umbrella of behavior design, where designers are looking at ways in which to help promote behavior change, whether it’s to exercise more to learn a new language, or to save energy. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Or avoid a zombie plague. Games work best when people are motivated to engage with a task after being prompted. 

Jo Quirk: Yeah, well they usually give you at least 24 hours notice that it’s going to happen so I know a lot of families will come home and do the washing, and make dinner, and things like that. We wash clothes at all various times, so if we know a Spike hour’s coming we just don’t do the laundry that night we’ll do it the night before or the night after, or even the hour before or the hour after…  If the spike hour is going to be on a weeknight, and it’s usually between like five and nine… they will average out your previous 10 week nights electricity usage for that hour. So if it was the six o’clock hour or the nine o’clock hour… They call it the forecast and you can always see what the forecast is and what nights they’ve based it on… But the target that they set for you is this forecast is the average of your previous 10, seven to 8pm’s on a weekday. So it’s an average, so it’s actually really easy to beat your average… and if you beat your forecast, you get points. And so if you beat it by a lot, you get more points.

Zac Fitz-Walter: So simply by providing that feedback of giving us an hour when we need to turn off our appliances, or to save some energy gives us this kind of goal or this challenge. And then to really reinforce that behavior by providing some kind of reward. It can motivate us to change our behavior, especially when there’s no motivation to begin with. Having some kind of reward or incentive is a great way to encourage people to change their behavior. 

Andy Saunders (Host): And Jo’s reward after switching off? Points which can be converted to cash or even gift cards.

Jo Quirk: We’re currently sitting on 44,366 points. So it’s $443.66. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Jo’s quarterly energy bill is pretty high. It’s usually around five hundred dollars. She doesn’t own a home so can’t offset that by installing solar or a battery, so anything that eases the strain helps in a huge way.

Jo Quirk: There are other benefits other than points, the points you can cash them out and it goes straight to your PayPal account or you can swap them for gift vouchers for like JB, Bunnings or Woollies or Kmart or whatever. There’s a few different stores… But, every now and then they’ll have a thing called a Mega Spike hour, where, aside from all the other bonuses that you might get based on your status or your streak, they double your points as well. So sometimes we might get $40 an hour, which is insane. But that would usually only happen if it’s the middle of summer, and there’s a heatwave, probably they happen a few times a year and they’re like, please, please save energy at this time. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Heatwaves, extreme weather events and natural disasters like fires can trigger black-outs and outages that can roll on for weeks. But these events aren’t exclusive to Australia. Nor is the concept of incentivizing customers to power down. It arrived here after Origin noticed what OhmConnect in the US were doing. 

Matt Duesterberg: It was super hot in New York, and I was at a friend’s apartment, he had the windows open, and his AC, just going off full blast.

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Matt Duesterberg. 

Matt Duesterberg: Co-founder of Ohmconnect. I had started this about seven years ago, really with the intention of democratising the electricity sector for everyone to participate in.

Andy Saunders (Host): Matt was an energy trader in New York. That meant he knew the wholesale cost that… utility companies paid for energy, before selling it on to the customer. So, at his friend’s apartment, during the summer, he had a brainwave – probably during a heatwave.

Matt Duesterberg: And I was like, Hey, you know, you’re trying to cool the entire city of New York, that’s not going to work very well… So when we started OhmConnect, the idea was, how can my friend and every other New York resident actually see those wholesale energy market prices and then actually benefit from it?

Andy Saunders (Host): Matt saw a gap. So with a colleague, who later became his co-founder, they made this idea a reality, while at a hackathon focused on accelerating the transition to a 100% clean energy economy. Aaah… I remember the hackathon days, they were good. To be clear, I have no idea what a hackathon is.

Matt Duesterberg: And so we made an app to really get consumers to change their behaviour to create energy reductions. A lot of people in the energy sector really scratch their head and no one is looking at their energy usage at any time. But at the end of the day, same thing was happening across other sectors in Silicon Valley. We were seeing Uber democratising taxi service across the world, Airbnb democratising hotels or lodging across the world. Why couldn’t we do the exact same with energy?

Andy Saunders (Host): And again, gaming proved key to unlocking the future success that OhmConnect would find. 

Matt Duesterberg: Yeah, game mechanics is such a large and broad scope of different interactions that can happen. My co-founder Cadir Lee actually worked in the gaming sector and brought some of the cutting edge technologies into OhmConnect. So one of the biggest game mechanics that we use at OhmConnect is what we call status. And you can think of this kind of like airline miles. You can either be silver or gold or platinum. If you’re really, really good, you can get to diamond level. And once you hit those different levels, you start to unlock rewards.

Andy Saunders (Host): Spike works in a similar way, here’s Jo. 

Jo Quirk: I like that the lowest level is called gold. It’s gold, platinum and then diamond. And so we’re just like well what’s diamond how do we get there. So early days, the rewards that you would get for the hour, the amount of points that you get are much lower because these other sort of… you won’t be diamond status until I think we had to do five in a row that were diamond status or gold or platinum and you get then you get that status evermore so it means that you get not only the base points, but you also get 150% more points. And a point is a cent basically worked out to be so if you get 200 points for the hour, you’ll get $2 but after you’ve done it for a while it grows. They also have another bonus that’s a streak bonus… and on top of that I’m also now diamond status so we’re getting 150% bonus on that so we get lots of points for just doing an hour’s talking to each other or an hour or an hour going for a walk. It really adds up. 

Matt Duesterberg: Unlocking different types of game mechanics for different types of people are really important. There are a lot of game mechanics we tried, and it actually failed. So for example, we tried a fairly complicated mechanic called gacha mechanic. It’s very common in Japanese culture. But if you’ve ever played the Monopoly game that McDonald’s does, this is the same gacha mechanic, it combines two components. One is a spin or kind of a random draw. So for example, you get randomly assigned, in the monopoly mechanic, Park Place or Boardwalk, but then it also combines a collectible, you need to have both Park Place and Boardwalk. So the beauty of this mechanic is that you always feel like you’re gaining, you’re always building up your collections. And then you can then cash in a big reward. This is a very common mechanic in more complicated games. What we found is because our whole process is actually already very complicated, our users do not want to have also a complicated reward structure. So they really wanted, Hey, I want to just spend a win, and we’ll, we’ll get a prize if we actually win, or I want to have a collectible. So separating those out have been has been really powerful.

Zac Fitz-Walter: Yeah, I think it’s a great idea. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Remember Zac Fitz-Walter, the zombie fleeing gamification designer? 

Zac Fitz-Walter: What it does is it creates a more engaging experience for people to help motivate them to change their behavior. So you know, it’s doing a couple of things. And you mentioned a couple of key things there, which can help promote behavior change. So… OHMConnect and Spike, the Origin Energy’s Spike program is that. First of all, it provides us with feedback. So you know, these companies have information about our energy use… And so providing this feedback and in the form of a challenge, or a goal for people can be a motivating aspect, I guess. So it gives us kind of this sense of feedback or a challenge that we can tackle. So simply by providing that feedback of giving us an hour when we need to turn off our appliances, or to save some energy gives us this kind of goal or this challenge. And then to really reinforce that behavior by providing some kind of reward. It can motivate us to change our behavior, especially when there’s no motivation to begin with. Having some kind of reward or incentive is a great way to encourage people to change their behavior.

Andy Saunders (Host): Like Jo said earlier on, it’s win, win. When customers reduce energy, energy grids stay online. And in recent years, places like California and Texas have endured long-lasting blackouts from heatwaves, wildfires, and even ice storms. And in recent years here in Australia, we’ve also had our fair share during the summer months. 

Matt Duesterberg: Yeah, in August 2020. In California, when we had those blackouts, it was a variety of factors, the number one factor was it’s hot… It was super hot. And it was really putting a lot of strain on the grid, we had a lot of ACs going, and we’ve had a really ramp up in air conditioning installed in California for the past few years. So it was just kind of maxing out the entire grid. But there were some other components with the grid itself. So for example, we were still exporting some power. And that energy could have been used within the state of California. The other component was we had a few gas power plants offline. And then of course, we also saw some kind of reduction in solar performance, and some of the renewable performance as well. All of those factors combined to what was unfortunately just a few hours of blackouts with hundreds of 1000s of folks being out of power. Now nothing as catastrophic as what we saw in Texas, but certainly a big wake up call for the grid.

Andy Saunders (Host): By the summer of 2020 OhmConnect deployed a strategy that enabled them to change the load capacity and reduce the pressure on the grid. 

Matt Duesterberg: Yeah, we had some of our biggest events last August… during these blackouts, and we saved a gigawatt hour of energy during that time, which is the same amount to basically power San Francisco for an entire hour. And so we saw massive reductions from our user base. And it was hard for them. We were seeing in social media: ‘Hey, it’s super hot. But what I am doing is I’m saving energy and getting paid’. So what we did was we had correctly aligned incentives from the beginning. So if they turned off their electricity, they knew they would be compensated for it. So people were willing to take on that additional burden, because we had incentivised them properly. So there are some posts on social media saying, ‘Hey, I’m sitting in front of a fan, I’ve got my laptop on’. There’s a lot of references to swamp coolers, which is just basically a cooler with water in it to help cool you down during those really hot events. And people were prepping for it, because we’re compensating them for it and incentivising in the right way. And so when they, we had the first few events, we had compensated them. And later on that week, we had a three or four hour event. And people were like, Bring it on, give me another three hour event, give me another four hour event, because they wanted to be incentivised and get paid for it.

Andy Saunders (Host): OhmConnect don’t generate electricity and they’re not an energy retailer. They manage demand across the grid. It’s different to what Origin does here in Australia. But, as I said earlier, Origin saw how gamification worked for OhmConnect and it felt like a shared vision of a future energy landscape.

Brendan Manzie: And that’s where Spike came from.

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Brendan Manzie from Origin’s future energy team. 

Brendan Manzie: What we’re sort of seeing, you know, as a thematic and a real, you know, a shifting trend is that as we move to this more connected energy future, we’ve got more and more customers that are engaging in solar, more and more customers that are looking, perhaps, you know, adding a battery to store their solar, more customers now looking at EV’s, electric vehicles and thinking about, well, how might I charge that up, you’ve naturally got a real groundswell of, you know, much higher engagement you know. You’ve got a lot more folks thinking very hard about their energy, not just from a cost point of view, like how’s this bill, sort of looking this month? But looking at well, how’s this energy being produced, you know, how much carbon am I in my sort of making by being part of this. 

Andy Saunders (Host): In practical terms, Jo’s experience emptomises this trend. Even if she doesn’t drive an EV or have solar, in her own way she’s engaging with the energy future… but it’s a future that’s happening today.

Jo Quirk: It’s made it more obvious to me, you know, how much energy is used by standby products, how much energy some of our big appliances use, like for one of the Spike hours you know, we turn off the fridge for an hour, which was fine. Certainly the drinks fridge we turn off. But it was amazing how much our energy usage was reduced just in that one hour by those small appliances, or maybe they’re large but it was, it was amazing how much they were reduced by.

Brendan Manzie: So we sort of see that emergence of a real awakening of interest in a number of different customer groups. And that’s where we thought, Well, you know, something like gamification really can play a role. Because we’re no longer just talking about issuing the bill every quarter and servicing the customer in a really good way there. It’s really about bringing them on that path and that journey and kind of opening the door to what’s possible in that sort of more contemporary, connected and renewable energy system. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Brendan will join us later in the series. I just want to give you his take on the origin story of Spike….hahaha, get it… ‘origin’ story…because of the whole…Origin thing… uhh, tough crowd, oh well, there’s a first time for everything….anyhoooo…Now, remember our mate Zombie Zac. He has some great insight into why human beings respond to gamification so enthusiastically. 

Zac Fitz-Walter: Yeah, so researchers, in the past have hypothesized or theorized that games are motivating to the extent that they support three things. So three basic psychological needs, which is autonomy, competence, and relatedness. And this falls under the theory known as self determination theory, and it’s essentially saying that for for humans to flourish, then these three things need to be supported.

Jo Quirk: I think it’s brilliant. I don’t know if it’s my demographic or my personality type, but I love gamification of anything. So I think you just get that feel good feeling, a bit of an endorphin rush when you achieve something and meet a goal or exceed a goal. So gamification, I think, is quite good. 

Zac Fitz-Walter: Then there’s also the theory of flow, which is another interesting theory that’s been developed in research… When we have a challenge that matches our skill level, then we can get into this, this flow zone I guess, where you know, everything else kind of we ignore everything else and we’re so focused on the task at hand, and, you know, it feels good to achieve it… Researchers have looked at the theory of flow and how it’s been seen in sport; in dancing, things like rock climbing, you might have that feeling when you read a book, and you know, it feels like time flies past. And it’s the same for video games as well, you can sit down, think that you’ve played for five minutes, but in actual fact, an hour or two hours have gone past.

Jo Quirk: An hour goes very quickly. And there’s so many different things we do in the summer months, we would, you know, stop and have a barbecue and you know, we go for a walk or play games on our phones, or we have a nap or we just sit and talk. It’s been quite, it’s been good because we know that hour’s coming up.

Andy Saunders (Host): Zac’s explanation of gamification supports Jo’s customer experience. She has autonomy: that sense of free will over the choices she makes. Competence; Jo’s challenged with tasks neither simple nor impossible. And relatedness; she’s supported by members of her household and relates her experience to friends. And then of course in that flow zone, time flies, an hour goes by pretty quickly. Thanks Zac, any final words of wisdom? 

Zac Fitz-Walter: Yeah, sure thing. Gamification works really well when… (Zombie growl)

Andy Saunders (Host): Ewww, that’s gotta hurt. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Come here zombie!

Andy Saunders (Host): Poor old Zac. Zombies zero, Andy one. Right, back to it. Jo seems a pretty good fit for Spike. Obsessed in a good way, saving money, helping the planet. But, tech wise, is she the average Jo?… Okay, in terms of tech Origin requires customers to have a smart meter, where possible they can upgrade meters. But, how smart, how decked in tech does a house have to be? Matt from OhmConnect has seen things change a lot over the years.

Matt Duesterberg: What’s been amazing in my seven year journey is the number of different devices that is available in a home that controls electricity… When we first started, we often give people a free smart plug for example. Those users that’s often the first smart device in their home. They get a smart plug from OhmConnect. And then within three to six months, we find that those same users will, on average, adopt another one or even two devices. So they’re going from zero devices to three devices in six months. And so then all of a sudden, you’ve got this trajectory of a much smarter and enabled grid from the end user perspective.

Jo Quirk: We got some, I call them like Interferers, or just a little plug that plugs into the wall. And it could be a remote control in the kitchen, I could just turn on the amb, and these lights would turn on and I loved it. I said let’s get more of those lazy things. And when we went to look at them, we were at Bunnings. And we found these appliances that you could turn them on and off from your phone. Or if you’ve got a little Google machine, you could ask Google to turn them on and off for you. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Light sensors, a smart tv, a smart plug and a voice activated assistant. Not overly tripped out in tech. Pretty much describes many of our homes. There is also a Spike App as another way customers can control their appliances. Not like Magneto but similar..ish. 

Jo Quirk: You can connect it in the spike hour app. And you can have it that all those appliances that you’ve connected just automatically turn off when a spike hour is upcoming. 

Andy Saunders (Host): At the top of this episode I told you that if my energy supplier told me they’d pay me if I turned my power off, I’d think what’s the catch? The catch is that we’re in this together, this transition toward a better future with energy. Okay Jo, let’s shut it down for an hour.

Jo Quirk: Google, turn off everything. 

Google: Okay, turning 15 things off. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Hello? Hey, anyone there? 

Andy Saunders (Host): Um…guys??

Andy Saunders (Host): Hey, stop mucking around…turn the lights…

Andy Saunders (Host): Zac! NOOOOoooooooooo!!!! 

Andy Saunders (Host): Next week on So Watt – Solar. Australians are in love with solar. It’s part of our psyche. So what is it about solar that’s made over three million homeowners, and counting, install it? How do we take heat from the sun and convert it into free power?

Martin Green: Yes, there was a French scientist, Edmund Becquerel… And he just shone some light on these bits of metal that were immersed in some solutions and managed to get an electrical current out of it. So that was the first sort of thought that light could be turned into electricity…

Andy Saunders (Host):  Join us next week for episode four.

Andy Saunders (Host): So Watt is the show that questions everything you thought you knew about energy and it’s brought to you by Origin. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Production and scripting by the team at Lawson Media.

Andy Saunders (Host):  If you’re keen to know more about Origin’s Spike program – check out some of the resources I’ve left in the episode show notes.

Andy Saunders (Host):  You can also learn more about the podcast and listen to other episodes at originenergy.com.au/sowatt, or just hit subscribe in the podcast app you’re in right now.
Andy Saunders (Host): I was Andy Saunders… until Zombie Zac got his pound of flesh. Hopefully I’ll be OK by the next episode.

So Watt? Episode 4 – Sunny Side Up

Australians love solar. In fact, more than 3 million homes already have panels installed. So what is it about solar that we love so much? What should we look for when installing rooftop solar? And how are we able to take heat from the sun and convert it into free power?

So Watt? is brought to you by Origin, with production and scripting from the team at Lawson Media.

Episode transcript

So Watt – Episode 4 – Sunny Side Up

Andy Saunders (Host): G’Day, I’m Andy Saunders and this is So Watt? a podcast from Origin that questions everything you thought you knew about energy, and explores the solutions that exist today. 

Andy Saunders (Host): If you tuned in before then you’ve shared a journey that I hope you’ve found as fascinating and informative as I have. You’ve also heard me make attempts at jokes, but this subject matter isn’t much to make fun of, that doesn’t mean I’ll stop. But you’ve heard where power comes from and how companies are using technology to disrupt traditional energy markets, giving us all renewable energy choices. Then, we went full Jetson with electric vehicles and found that EV smile. 

Chau Le: I’ve gone full Jetsons…

Andy Saunders (Host): You learnt how energy companies use gamification to change the customer experience. You get rewards to switch off, reduce the strain on energy grids and help prevent blackouts. A win for us, a win for the planet. Although, that episode didn’t end well for me when Zombie Zac ate my brains. To be fair, there wasn’t much to chew on, Zac is now quite malnourished.

Andy Saunders (Host): Anyway, I’m a pretty renewable kind of guy…hold for laughter and applause… Join me now in episode four as we explore the perks of solar. To find out more, I’ve strapped a giant pair of wings to my back and I’m flying toward the sun. 

Andy Saunders (Host): What could pooosssssibly go wroooooonnnggg?

Mark Kerr: Yeah. Look, if you’re starting to do some research and thinking about a solar system, there’s a number of things you can think about. 

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Mark Kerr, the group manager for large scale solar and operations at Origin. 

Mark Kerr: First of all, you want to think about… the quality of the system that you want to get. I view solar as a long term investment, you put it on your roof, you don’t want to have issues with it, you really want to be able to put it there and have confidence that it’s going to be there for the long term. So have a good think about who you think good providers are, ask around with friends, family, all of those sorts of things. Do your research. But certainly I’d encourage people (to) go and find a good credible provider who will be with you for the journey. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Deb and I have a holiday home that the bank owns and that had solar panels when we bought it, when they bought it. The family home doesn’t, but we’re thinking about it. Mark is going to help explain the first steps towards going solar, like what’s it going to cost?

Mark Kerr: Yeah, so it depends, like solar systems come in all shapes and sizes, you can have the base model. You can have the advanced model. You can have, depending on how much roof space you’ve got, you might have a small system, a medium system, a large system, so there’s no there’s not really a one size fits all solution to solar. But having said that, if you take a typical residential solar system, it costs you somewhere between five to $6,000. Or you can pay more if you want better features, in terms of you know, fancier electronics and, and all those sorts of things, but you can get a good quality basic system for around the five to $6,000 Mark, if you want, you know, a higher quality system, you might pay $1,000 or $2,000 more. That sort of system should give you savings of about $1,000 a year in terms of electricity that you don’t need to buy off the grid anymore. So that gives you payback times really around five, six years on average. It depends on things like feed-in tariffs, which is if you generate more solar electricity than you use, and you send it into the grid, your retailer actually gives you money for that. That’s called a feed-in tariff.

Andy Saunders (Host): How good is being paid to feed energy back into the grid and getting a suntan at the same time? Not that i need one. .Aussies love solar! More than three million homes now have it. That’s about one house in three! Okay, next step: where do I get my solar panels from? Is it the local take away or grocery store?

Mark Kerr: They’re predominantly made in China, but there’s also panels which are made in various other parts of Asia, there’s panels which are made out of Europe, there’s panels which are made out of America, so on and so forth… But clearly, Solar is very much a, it’s a customer driven choice. You don’t have to buy a solar system. It’s a discretionary thing. So customers should choose what’s most important to them.

Robert Sporne: I’m Robert Sporne from Tindo Solar. I’m the general manager here. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Robert runs Tindo Solar. That’s Tindo not Tinder. They’re based in Mawson Lakes, South Australia. You might be as surprised as I was to find out that Tindo Solar are…

Robert Sporne: Australia’s only solar panel manufacturer.

Andy Saunders (Host): There’s so much happening in the solar space. Change is fast and constant. You can expect to see other Australian solar manufacturers coming online in time. Just because we import most of our panels from overseas, doesn’t mean we love solar any less and Robert has a pretty good theory why. 

Robert Sporne: I like to think of it as the democratisation of power. So for so long, we’ve been wedded to our energy retailers and having to take the power that they give us and put up with the prices they charge us, and we haven’t had much of a say. And Australians, we’re an independent lot. And we like to take control and be able to have that independence, and be able to know, you know, this is my power, it’s my solar. I’m generating my own electricity for my own family. And that’s probably the biggest driver we have in Australia is they just want to take control of their own destiny, basically.

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay, a quick recap: your initial investment of several thousand dollars hopefully pays off after half a dozen years. You might even get paid for sending electricity back onto the grid. To choose a solar manufacturer you can look worldwide or hit up Robert at Tindo Solar, if you want to go Australian. Again, don’t hit up Robert on Tinder, it’s Tindo, please remember that guys, I didn’t. Next, how does a solar panel work? 

Robert Sporne: Yeah, so a solar panel, in its simplest form is silicon metal, with a few coatings and treatments and some silver and we then solder those solar cells together into strings of cells, we laminate them between glass and layers of protecting film, put a frame around the outside. And that’s how we end up with a with a single solar module. Once we connect all those solar modules together, we end up with a nice simple solar system for either a residential or commercial system. Those panels they’ll produce, they’ll take about 20% of the incoming light, turn it into electricity, and typically directly power the property that they’re connected to. 

Andy Saunders (Host): But a lot of properties are different, households and families vary, so surely it can’t be one size fits all? Like me and my brothers undies when we were young.

Robert Sporne: We do a number of systems where customers know that they have certain daytime usage. And so we’ll do a two or three kilowatt system for them. They understand they’re going to have their evening usages. And so they’ll get a smaller system just to cover their personal needs during the day, they may be a retired couple with no kids, that sort of thing. Then we have big families, big usages, and they’ll go with a 10 or 15 kilowatt system, generate the hell out of it, and have plenty of option and they can add batteries down the track. And then there’s everything in between. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Shop around for a good installer that works with you to figure out what you need to power your home. Before we go on, I want to go back to something Robert said before, when he mentioned that solar panels only turn about 20 per cent of incoming light into electricity. That really surprised me. I thought it would have been more. 

Robert Sporne: We get about 1000 watts per square metre of light hitting the earth surface every day. Whereas the solar might put out 200 watts per square metre of electricity. So that difference, the 800 watt loss or the 20 per cent efficiency it’s a fundamental principle of photovoltaics. So there’s a lot of R&D pushing the cells up, the cells that we use are about 23%. 

Martin Green: We held the world record for silicon solar efficiency for 30 of the last 38 years. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Remember when Robert mentioned photovoltaics? Well, to explain that term let me introduce you to the top-dog, the big cheese, Il Padrino, the man many regard as the Father of Photovoltaics. Sounds like some sort of selfie mafia. 

Martin Green: You so, maybe modern photovoltaics, father of modern photovoltaics.

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay…the father of modern photovoltaics. 

Martin Green: We completely dominated the field and the ideas that we published, you know, other groups around the world would cotton on to them and follow in our footsteps more or less to improve what they were doing as well.

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Martin Green, from the University of New South Wales.

Martin Green: I work in the school of photovoltaic engineering that we established at the university in around the year 2000.

Andy Saunders (Host): He and his colleagues have an international reputation for improving silicon solar efficiency, optimizing solar cell voltage, and reducing manufacturing costs. With Martin we fly close to the sun. He’s a very big deal. With me, I have a reputation for improving hot chips with tomato sauce. 

Martin Green: I’m Director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics that involves groups, other Australian universities and the CSIRO. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Martin’s been researching solar energy conversion for over 40 years. So who better to explain Australia’s long love affair with solar. 

Martin Green: Yes, there was a French scientist.

Andy Saunders (Host): A French scientist!! Seriously? Le wow.

Martin Green: Edmond Becquerel. And he, I think he was 19. He was quite young, but his father was a very well known scientist, and he was working in his lab, and he just shone some light on these bits of metal that were immersed in some solutions and managed to get an electrical current out of it. So that was the first sort of thought that that light could be turned into electricity, you know, via chemicals, and so on. So that’s, that’s normally regarded as the start of the photovoltaic era. Although it wasn’t until later in the 19th century that people started making solar cells that look more like the ones that we’re used to today.

Andy Saunders (Host): So, we know what a solar panel looks like, and Robert from Tindo Solar told us about the components: silicon solar cells soldered together, forming a string of cells layered between laminated panels. But, when sunlight hits those solar cells how is it converted into electricity? Please tell us, please, Martin. 

Martin Green: Yeah, so, it depends on modern physics… so it took the development of quantum mechanics to allow the operation of the cells to be understood. But even before that, Albert Einstein just had this insight that tha… the way the light interacted with, with solid materials, you could regard the light as being made up of little packets of energy as well. So these are known as photons. That type of thinking then led to quantum mechanics itself and the formulation of the equations and everything that you need to understand the material the semiconductors, that light is interacting, in a solar cell.

Andy Saunders (Host): For some of you, those packets of energized sunlight – photons, are hitting your solar panels, the semi-conducting, photovoltaic cells, right now. Go on, go outside and take a cheeky look. Also think about what I just said and how I said it and how it sounded like I knew what I was talking about.   

Martin Green: So the photons in sunlight hit the semiconductor. And if they’ve got enough energy, they can excite an electron from these lower energy allowed states up to the higher energy across the band gap. 

Andy Saunders (Host): The band gap is not when musicians forget to turn up for a gig. In a semiconductor the band gap is the minimum energy required to excite an electron. I know it doesn’t sound like a great night out but If there’s enough energy in the form of sunlight hitting the solar panel, the electrons are agitated and go into a free state. 

Martin Green: And once they get into these high energy states, they can move through the semiconductor so you can carry electrical current in the semiconductor. So a solar cell, you just have the semiconductor, the light falls on it, the photons with enough energy create these free electrons. And then the solar cell is designed to get them all moving off in the same direction. If you just have a piece of semiconductor sitting there, though, the electrons will get excited up and then just sort of relax back to their ground state eventually. But if you have a solar cell, you whisk the electrons out of the material before they have a chance to relax back to their original states. 

Andy Saunders (Host): As Martin explained, photovoltaics is the conversion of light into electricity via a semiconducting material, silicon. His passion for solar began with an interest in microelectronics, which led to completing a PHD in Canada and then – like me flying toward the sun… Martin found himself hurtling toward space… in the pursuit of semi-conducting structures that produced the greatest solar conversion efficiency.  

Martin Green: Yes, there was a… bustling industry for spacecraft. So that was the first efficient cells were made in the 1950s. As a result of all this understanding of semiconductors and things that develop then. And… people were quite excited about being able to make energy from the sun efficiently and everything but they were way too, the cells were way too expensive then. So that the only use that was found for them was in powering satellites, where they proved ideal.

Andy Saunders (Host): Then, in 1973, oil embargoes between the US and the Middle East forced the United States to pursue other forms of energy. And Project Independence was launched. I love that movie. Will Smith is awesome.

Richard Nixon: What I have called Project Independence 1980. Is a series of plans and goals to ensure that by the end of this decade, Americans will not have to rely on any source of energy beyond our own.

Martin Green: Nixon launched project independence, which was you’re trying to find non fossil sources of energy, not because of the climate impact, but because they wouldn’t be dependent on the Middle East for their energy supplies.

Andy Saunders (Host): But it wasn’t until Jimmy Carter’s presidency, between 1977 and ‘81,   that funding for solar really took off. 

Martin Green: So there was a big program launch that got well funded during the Jimmy Carter era, to take what we knew about solar cells for spacecraft and try and develop much cheaper cells for terrestrial use. So that sort of stimulated programs worldwide, and also created a lot of activity in the industry.

Andy Saunders (Host): By then, in the mid 70s, Martin had set up a research program in solar at the University of New South Wales. Although the solar industry was bustling and energised, manufacturing this would-be alternative to oil, remained hellishly expensive. It was even more expensive than getting a haircut in the 70’s.

Martin Green: So there was this huge international effort promoting the technology, and you’re aiming to get the cost down, and the durability of the technology to its maximum potential.

Andy Saunders (Host): Martin and his colleagues held their own against larger, better funded groups around the world. His PhD work, developing new structures, set them apart. No one else could do what this small Australian group was achieving. And more innovation was to come when Martin plonked solar technology in the middle of nowhere, outback Australia. After all, that’s where the sun always was. To be fair it’s always everywhere. Hmmmm, deep.

Martin Green: The application that started taking off and sort of shot Australia to the forefront was in remote telecommunications. In those days, telephone signals and things were beamed around the country by transmitting radio waves from one sort of antenna to the next sort of bouncing about 30 kilometers apart, you’d beam the signal right across the country.

Andy Saunders (Host): The diesel powered repeater stations needed constant maintenance and refuelling, conversion to solar had numerous benefits. 

Martin Green: You just needed to send someone out every now and then to make sure everything was ticking over. And it wasn’t nearly as much servicing and so on required. That sort of shot Australia, we were the main commercial market for solar cells and there was two companies manufacturing the cells in Australia by the mid 1980s. 

Andy Saunders (Host): With commercial credibility and international recognition came funding, which in turn boosted research and development.  Two really significant ideas that Martin and his colleagues worked on made their way through to commercial manufacturing.

Martin Green: So one of the cells that we developed in the 1980s was called the PERC cell PERC. And now, I think it’s 95%, this year, of all the manufacturing worldwide is manufacturing this PERC cell, because it can be made very cheaply, and it gives you very high efficiency at the same time, so that that’s just completely taken over the whole market… You’ll see PERC here and PERC there, PERC everywhere. But that was an acronym that I coined in the 1980s. 

Andy Saunders (Host): PERC stands for Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell. The second technology they improved was borne from Martin’s PHD, after he’d found a way to increase the voltage output.

Martin Green: Again, something from quantum mechanics, but generally, it’s hard to pass current through an insulator, but if you make it thin enough, quantum mechanics shows that you can, it can be quite, quite conductive. So that’s what my PhD thesis was on, looking at the properties of these tunneling structures… the reason people are interested in these tunneling structures that we originated is it looks like they might might be able to get even higher efficiencies than with the PERC. So there’s, so that’s keeping everyone on their toes.

Andy Saunders (Host): Please don’t underestimate Professor Martin Green’s contribution to photovoltaics. It’s because of him, we love and embrace solar innovation here in Australia. He has won Australian and international awards for his work in solar, including The Right Livelihood Award – also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. Students that have worked with him often become industry leaders. One of them, Dr Zhengrong Shi set up solar cell manufacturing in China in the early 2000s and even became known as the first solar billionaire. Unlike myself, a one in a billion solar user. Martin even beat Elon Musk to win the 2018 Global Energy prize. The majority of solar panels made today use the PERC solar cell that Martin and his team invented. However, those PERC cells that took the world by storm are not manufactured here. Here’s Robert from Tindo Solar again. Swipe right.

Robert Sporne: At the moment, the PERC crystalline cell that we use on our modules was actually invented in Australia. And nobody actually makes those cells in Australia, and they’re off being made in predominantly China, and then coming back to this country, so we have a massive sort of brain power in this country… What we are hoping to see over the next few years is that we actually have the industry capable of developing those technologies and manufacturing them within this country, rather than having to send the IP overseas.

Dorota Bacal: But that’s not everything what is happening in the space, actually the space is much more exciting. And in particular, the development of new different types of technology. 

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Dorota Bacal. She works for ‘Race For 2030’. Their mission is to drive innovation for a secure, affordable, clean energy future. That’s pretty cool.

Dorota Bacal: And what I do every day is helping our industry partners to decarbonise and to go through the energy transition.

Andy Saunders (Host): Dorota also has a PhD in renewable energy. 

Dorota Bacal: So we do have many other technologies not only the silicon base solar panels that you can buy and one of the technologies that I was working on was the perovskite solar cells which is kind of a breakthrough of the recent years.

Andy Saunders (Host): Perovskite solar cells are a fast advancing technology. There’s still hammering out to do, in research and development, but so far they’re proving incredibly efficient, and cheaper and easier to make. 

Dorota Bacal: It’s actually pretty interesting that perovskite itself, the name, it actually, it’s not the name of the solar solar cell. It is actually the name of the crystal structure… the atoms within the crystal are arranged in a very symmetric but very specific way. Perovskite is just another type of crystal.

Andy Saunders (Host): Just like salt flakes or a diamond have a specific structure, so too does perovskite. Sort of like me as well. 

Dorota Bacal: So the perovskite crystals can contain different types of atoms and molecules, and some of them are able to, to generate the electricity when they are exposed to sunlight. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Although it’s commonly found, it’s only a specific type of perovskite crystal that can convert light into electricity. 

Dorota Bacal: So if I were to describe how a perovskite solar cell look, it is a sandwich, it basically is a sandwich. And in the middle of the sandwich, there is a soup that you are creating by following a recipe and later on drying. So it actually stops being a soup. But then it is a, this layer of perovskite is actually the most exciting one, it’s the one that is generating the electricity.

Andy Saunders (Host): Now don’t rush out to order your perovskite sandwich just yet. As I said, there’s more research and development that needs to happen. And they need a lot of tomato sauce as well, very bitter. 

Dorota Bacal: When we talk about the, the most, I guess, common perovskites that we are now using for solar technology, they would contain some organic molecules, and this unfortunately, decompose over time… But that said, there are actually companies around the world who are working very hard to commercialise this technology.

Andy Saunders (Host): Pilot programs are testing the commercial viability – but there’s another, kinda fun reason why I want this technology to succeed. 

Dorota Bacal: Flexibility is something that we are able to achieve with perovskite pretty quickly. That’s because the perovskite solar panels, solar cells, they are produced out of liquid. So if something is a liquid, we can actually use it as an ink. And this is where the printing of the solar and solar panels comes to play. And if you are printing something at home on paper, paper is obviously flexible. And you can print solar panels on the flexible substrate just like you do at home printing documents. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Imagine printing solar panels from home, or on our clothes, camping or hiking gear. Imagine windows and blinds in houses and towering skyscraper exteriors. All potential solar panels, electricity generating surfaces. Not sure about a speedo though, could get warm. 

Dorota Bacal: And that’s pretty cool when you think about the surface of all of this windows, in the high rise buildings in the city. All of the windows are usually a little bit dimmed in order to you know, decrease the light that comes inside of the building. But they could be also working like they could be earning money for the building or the building occupants or, or the owner of the of the building. I mean, that’s just so much surface that’s wasted, and it could do something.  

Andy Saunders (Host): Flexible solar panels might still be a few years off, and in the meantime perovskite technology may be gazumped by something else. The point is, the solar industry can innovate through research and development only as long as it’s supported. Professor Martin Green started on his own, but the support he found helped him change the world. Like me with my idea of practicing parkour while travelling long distances on an aircraft. 

Dorota Bacal: And nothing really would happen in the space, unless there were scientists who actually make this first move. It’s really so important to support the innovation, because that really gives us the future. We can’t do things the same way we were doing it for the you know, past few decades, because that obviously is not working. I mean, it works, but it’s just you know, it’s pushing us off the cliff. And it’s really time to take this seriously… So more innovation in the space, that’s something that I really hope for, and the support of, of the investors and the support of the government for innovations. This is exactly what we need right now. And unfortunately we need to do it very fast.

Martin Green: Just looking at my window now I can see five or six houses with solar panels of the 50 or so in my line of view. So you know, it’s quite rewarding to see the that type of uptake. But I think the really big impacts are still in the future when we generate most of our electricity from solar, which I think we’ll be doing, you know, maybe by 2030, 2040. 2030, we’ll see huge amounts installed and 2040 maybe most of our electricity will be coming from solar. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Around 10 per cent of Australia’s electricity currently comes from solar. But like all love affairs, issues arise from time to time. Our electrical grids have been traditionally powered by a handful of consistent coal, gas, or hydro power stations…. but we now have millions of distributed resources all trying to feed their excess energy into the grid. During the day, this means we’ve got a lot of excess power hitting the grid, and at night, a lot of that goes away. A bit like my hair thickness at my age. 

Andy Saunders (Host): So we’ve got to come up with a long-term solution to deal with these fluctuations… and a popular fix is installing a battery. Or hair plugs.

Martin Green: Batteries are preferable because they can be installed very quickly, like Elon Musk put in the Hornsdale battery in 100 days… So yeah, so that’s going to be an important part as well. 

Andy Saunders (Host): If Martin Green believes batteries are the future then let’s get on board. Next week on So Watt? – Batteries. What are the benefits of a home battery, how do they work, and what’s in it for us? Plus how are giant, Elon Musk sized batteries, helping us stabilise our energy grid?

Marnie Shaw: So batteries ramp up output in a fraction of a second and can detect if there’s a change in frequency in sub second timescale. So technically, batteries are just performing even better than we possibly expected. So now we know that they’ll be able to provide the services moving forward as we electrify our energy system. 

Andy Saunders (Host): So Watt is the show that questions everything you thought you knew about energy and it’s brought to you by Origin. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Production and scripting by the team at Lawson Media.

Andy Saunders (Host): If you’re enjoying the series… head on over to Apple Podcasts and leave a review, or share it with a friend. 

Andy Saunders (Host): And if you’re keen to know more about Origin’s approach to solar – check out some of the resources I’ve left in the episode show notes, 

Andy Saunders (Host): You can also find out more about the podcast and listen to other episodes at originenergy.com.au/sowatt.
Andy Saunders (Host): I’m Andy Saunders and unlike Icarus I survived flying close to the sun. Ouch, it still burns.

So Watt? Episode 5 – All Charged Up

Batteries have the potential to change the way we use energy in our homes. They can allow us to store solar energy and give us access to that power at night. They’re also becoming increasingly important to keep our entire energy network operational. But should you go out and invest in a home battery right now? And what new battery tech is coming down the pipeline?

So Watt? is brought to you by Origin, with production and scripting from the team at Lawson Media.

Episode transcript

So Watt – Episode 5 – All Charged Up

Andy Saunders (Host): G’Day, it’s Andy Saunders here again… (SFX: sound of batteries being changed)

Andy Saunders (Host): This is So Watt – a podcast from Origin that questions everything you thought you knew about energy and explores the solutions that exist today. And in this episode we explore batteries and what they can do for you. 

Mark Kerr: Batteries do two things primarily for customers. One is that they obviously let you store the solar power that you generate. Because the sun shines in the middle of day, that’s when most of your electricity is generated. And often what you find is the property itself consumes some of that solar, but often it’s more solar than the house consumes, so it gets exported currently. 

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Mark Kerr from Origin. Mark was in our episode on Solar. So he’s part of the podcast furniture here. He’s the group manager for large scale solar and operations within Origin. His team looks after ‘behind the metre’ operations. Think of your energy metre as a border crossing checkpoint. There’s in front of and behind the metre. In front of the metre refers to anything that happens on the grid side, that’s the national electricity market we’ve talked about before – all the poles and wires. Then there’s ‘behind the metre’, that’s anything that occurs on site, on the user’s side of the metre, such as solar, or your home battery. 

Mark Kerr: Whereas if you have a battery, what will happen is you’ll charge up your battery. And then as you get to the evening, and the sun starts to drop, rather than purchasing electricity from the grid, you’ll just use the electricity that you generated yourself and stored in your battery. So it allows you to capture more value from your solar system is essentially what it does. And it helps you avoid grid costs. So that’s the first thing that storage systems can do for customers. And often that’s the main thing that customers are looking for.

Andy Saunders (Host): Normally, home batteries allow you to time-shift when you use solar energy. Hmm time-shift… But the other exciting possibility with a battery is the ability to provide backup power for your entire home.

Mark Kerr: The second thing that… storage systems can do. If you pay a bit more, you can set them up so that they effectively can provide backup to your home. So under default sort of installation, with no backup, if… the grid goes down and there’s a blackout, well, you lose your power as well. But if you pay a bit more and get a partial backup or a full backup system, when the poles and wires or the grid goes out, what happens is the battery will disconnect your home from the grid, and then it will power your home for you to the extent that you’ve got power stored up in your battery. And if the solar’s still running, it will continue to charge up your battery. So that’s called backup capability.

Andy Saunders (Host): If you think back 10 or 15 years ago, I would be younger and you probably didn’t know that many people who had solar. Now you see panels everywhere. Batteries are going to be the same. While they’re a bit of a novelty right now, more and more people are choosing to add a battery to their home to participate in the transformation of our energy network. I’ve added 2 but have to change them constantly, maybe they should be bigger than triple A’s I reckon, yeah.

Mark Kerr: So you’re seeing a big transition, in my view, at least as to how consumers – or prosumers, or businesses think about energy for themselves, because they can start to become generators themselves through their own solar systems, they can start to change their own energy mix themselves.

Andy Saunders (Host): And while the initial entry price for solar was pretty high, our enthusiasm for the technology, and government incentives, helped many of us take the plunge, and eventually the price dropped. Right now, batteries are still quite expensive, and have a lengthy payback period. Some states have incentives, but could the same price drops happen for batteries? Gosh, I hope so, mine are 10 bucks for a dozen at the moment. 

Mark Kerr: You know, for every 100 solar systems that go in Australia, right now there’s maybe…  two or three batteries go in. Having said that, batteries today are kind of where solar was 10 years ago… Batteries will get cheaper over time, batteries will provide more benefit to customers over time. So it’s really it’s a matter of I think, those time frames playing out and you’ll find that customers will, as we sit here right now, will say that they’ll gradually adopt it, but in 10 years time, we’ll probably look back and go, Wow, everyone’s adopted batteries all of a sudden.

Andy Saunders (Host): And those residential batteries charged by solar, can feed into the grid. Or, can buy power when it’s cheap and sell it back to the grid during peak periods.

Mark Kerr: I would certainly say to people that battery technology does continue to improve year on year, and the cost position of it is improving year on year. It’s just a matter of where those products are being prioritised right now. 

Andy Saunders (Host): As manufacturing scales up, technology will improve and the cost of residential batteries will come down. Like it did with solar. Right now, manufacturers are prioritising batteries for electric vehicles but also large and grid scale projects. And, as we’re finding out, those large scale batteries have a lot of benefits. 

Mark Kerr: The large scale batteries have a bunch of technology built into them that allows them to really support the strength of the grid. So that’s the grid, runs at a certain frequency and it has all these other parameters and the batteries, they act to keep the grid robust and reliable. Those things, combined with the ability to store power and respond in a very quick way, really gives grid scale batteries some key capabilities compared to other sorts of technology that sits on the grid. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay, I want you to lean in and listen here, because this is important information about how batteries can work to stabilise the grid.  And there will be a test, so pay attention. Yes, Deb Saunders I’m talking to you!

Deb Saunders: With a battery, you can store your energy, use it back, if you don’t have the battery, you lose it. Is that right? 

Andy Saunders (Host): Sort of. Our energy grid has a set frequency, which needs to remain at around 50 Hertz – that means fifty voltage cycles per second. Batteries can quickly determine if the grid needs help and they deliver or draw power in a fraction of a second to maintain the grid’s frequency. 

Mark Kerr: A lot of your more traditional fossil fuel type plants just can’t respond quickly. Coal fired power stations, even the flexible ones, takes them considerable amount of time to ramp up in temperature and then ramp back down in temperature. Whereas batteries simply, they operate on like millisecond timescales. So they can detect weaknesses in the frequency of the grid and other features of the grid and respond to those things in and keep it very robust. And they just have great flexibility in terms of when they can store power from the grid or send power back to the grid, depending on what the battery operator is looking to achieve. So the flexibility of them, the adaptability of them, in a world where the costs of them are coming down, you can see that there’s very extensive plans by many, many companies in Australia, to put in more and more grid scale batteries to really allow that flexibility and all those things to occur.  And that’s why they’re so attractive! 

Andy Saunders (Host): Australia has already learned how successful a grid scale battery can be thanks to the giant Tesla battery at Hornsdale in South Australia. I thought a hornsdale was a cow, anyway. The battery was made famous thanks to a Twitter exchange between Elon Musk and our own Mike Cannon-Brookes – where Elon promised to install the battery in 100 days or it would be free. Wow, that’s sometimes faster than food delivery. To be fair though, I shouldn’t order it from overseas. Back when it launched in 2017, it was the biggest battery in the world – and became an example of what could be possible. Like my 34 pocket pant invention, fits everything.

Ariel Liebman: I think we learned everything that we more or less sort of expected, they’re incredibly flexible and effective tools for energy balancing. 

Andy Saunders (Host): We heard from Professor Ariel Liebman from the Monash Energy Institute way back in episode one. Remember those good old days, only seems like 3 or 4 episodes ago. Wow, where did that time go? Where’s a time-shift when you need it.

Ariel Liebman: And particularly, the important thing to know is because they’re actually computer managed devices, they’re on top of your battery cells, which are a little bit like the ones in your mobile phone. They’re a lot like actually, but just bigger lithium ion batteries. There’s a sophisticated battery management system with a sophisticated digital control system that allows you to sort of sculpt down to milliseconds, the output of the battery or the charging of the battery, so the battery can play the role of, of a balancing actor, helping balance the supply and demand in very, very fast timescales which are the timescales at which we’re starting to struggle when you just look at things like the interaction between coal and gas and Hydro and renewables, like wind and solar. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Like my wife, batteries can respond in a millisecond if things go haywire, if a grid or a transmission line goes down. Or, over minutes or hours they can build up energy storage, in anticipation of it being required later on. That’s a bit like me.

Ariel Liebman: So we’ve seen through the Tesla battery it can do that. And it’s really not a surprise. I mean, by the time you install one of these things at that scale, you know that it’s going to be able to do all these things. So it really just proves what we already knew, and gives us, I guess, a lot more confidence that we need another 10,000 of those. And we will need that sort of scale… as we go towards and beyond 100% renewables. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Grid-scale batteries are offering us stability, especially as more of our energy demands are being met by renewables. Since 2017, we’ve learnt a whole lot more about how batteries can benefit the network, and the projects being launched have become even more ambitious.

Andy Saunders (Host): Origin’s even planning to build a giant battery at Eraring in New South Wales of up to 700 Megawatts. To put that into perspective, the giant Tesla battery in South Australia is just 150 Megawatts… When it’s built, Origin’s big battery will be one of the biggest in the world. Then we can take over the universe….I think?

Mark Kerr: Origin’s got some big plans for grid scale batteries, throughout the areas that it operates in. It’s building its plans to be able to put very large scale batteries at a number of its existing facilities. And they offer great benefits to customers in terms of being able to make sure that there’s reliable and consistent supply to the customers. And it’s also a very good economic choice in terms of what’s the best way to provide customers and the grid with the lowest cost services that customers are wanting from them. And they’re also just a great environmental choice as well, in many ways. Because they’re a good use of land, they don’t make noise and all of those sorts of things. 

Andy Saunders (Host): So just as grid scale batteries can provide stability to the grid imagine, if our home batteries could connect and interact with the grid in the same way.  

Mark Kerr: And that’s what’s called a virtual power plant.

Andy Saunders (Host): A what now!?

Mark Kerr: A VPP is a virtual power plant. And what it is, is essentially, you can take all of these behind the metre energy assets, whether that’s solar systems, and batteries in particular.

Andy Saunders (Host): Oh, hang on, hang on to your batteries now. Let’s not time-shift ahead. 

Mark Kerr: But it can be other things like customers’ hot water systems, and it can be a whole range of…

Andy Saunders (Host): Sorry Mark, like Deb does to me when i mention my 34 pocket pant idea I’ve got to shut you down. We’re going to hear more in our final episode about Virtual Power Plants, so stay tuned. For now, back to batteries. From large scale to residential our relationship with batteries is evolving. But not everyone will be able to get a battery installed in their homes – only the chosen ones will… just joking. So there’s a promising area of research happening around what’s known as community batteries. 

Marnie Shaw: So neighborhood scale, batteries are just like normal batteries, you know, you’d see a Tesla household battery, but they’re bigger.

Andy Saunders (Host): This is Marnie Shaw. And I’m sure Marnie will tell us more. See what I did there? Go on Marnie.

Marnie Shaw: I’m from the Battery Storage and Grid Integration program at the Australian National University. And I’m a senior research fellow there.

Andy Saunders (Host): After receiving a grant from ARENA: Not the amazing singer Tina Arena. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency, Marnie, along with some of her postdoc students spent a few years looking at the potential benefits of community batteries.

Marnie Shaw: So they’re, like 10 to 100 times bigger than a typical household battery. The power is sort of around half a meg to one, megawatt. And the important thing is that they’re positioned on the low voltage network. And whereas a household battery would be positioned behind the meter on your house, a neighborhood scale battery is typically positioned in front of the meter. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Remember our border crossing checkpoint? Behind the meter is anything that occurs on your side. In front of the meter is anything that happens on the network side with all the poles and wires.

Marnie Shaw: It’s a shared energy storage designed to be shared between, say, 10 to 100 houses.

Andy Saunders (Host): Marnie says community batteries could be made financially viable by having a discounted network tariff applied to them. Then, solar equipped houses would feed solar energy into the large neighbourhood battery for homes to draw from at night. Win, win. 

Marnie Shaw: But then there are these other benefits right and you can use community scale batteries to provide network support services. Things like frequency support, voltage support, and the battery can be paid for providing those network services from the network services provider. And in addition to that, you can also use the battery to make money through energy markets, you know, say through FCAS or through energy arbitrage.

Andy Saunders (Host): Okay, arbitrage is the buying and selling of electricity from the market; for example, buying in off-peak periods, storing that electricity and then selling it back during peak time as needed. Ha, I thought it was at the market, like fish market or a flower market, okay. And FCAS stands for Frequency Control and Ancillary Services. Remember earlier, when I said there’d be a test? Deb Saunders, what is the set frequency the grid needs to maintain?

Andy Saunders (Host): Yes, I thought so. 50 Hertz, which means fifty voltage cycles per second. As we found out earlier, batteries are really good at helping maintain that constant frequency by delivering or drawing power out from the grid when needed. She is still so much smarter than me.

Marnie Shaw: So it could potentially earn revenue for the battery owner. And then I guess one important benefit or potential benefit, I should say, is that communities see community batteries or neighborhood scale batteries as a way that they could manage their own local energy and help them in their shift towards a decarbonized energy system… So we need to decarbonize as fast as possible. Communities are tired of waiting for governments… to make those changes. So they see assets like community batteries as a way for them to take matters into their own hands, manage their own energy locally. And they know that energy storage is an important way to do that.

Andy Saunders (Host): In Melbourne, local networks are about to start rolling out trials of community batteries. That doesn’t mean the batteries have committed a crime. But in Sydney, the first of three batteries was installed at Beacon Hill in early 2021. And Western Australia already has thirteen communities with batteries up and running, with encouraging results. 

Marnie Shaw: Yeah, so the largest trial so far in Australia is in W.A. And they’ve just had the results published this year. And what they found was that most people saved money. With the community battery’s, around about 85% of people save money. The way the trial worked is that people paid a monthly fee. So they paid $11 a month for basically unlimited virtual storage. So they did save money in general, but there was a small proportion of people who didn’t save money, so 15% of people didn’t save money. Really importantly, for the local network is that there, those batteries were really successful at reducing the peak load in the evening, which was what they were designed to do. They found that there was something like an 85% reduction in that peak load in the evening. So it’s a really successful technically, mostly successful economically, but some lessons moving forward. 

Andy Saunders (Host): One of the lessons that came from the trials is the question of who owns the battery? This is something local communities will have to grapple with. Because the way the battery is owned and operated impacts the services it provides and the customer expectations. 

Marnie Shaw: So you might have a network who owns and operates the battery. And they’re doing it to provide network services, which are obviously crucial and very important. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect what the consumers are wanting, which is that they want the battery to be used to keep the energy local, and to make sure that the electricity that they’re consuming is increasingly decarbonised. So we have to make sure that whatever the ownership model that is adopted, and the operation model, that it does continue to reflect what consumers and what communities actually want, and why they were so interested in community batteries to start with.

Andy Saunders (Host): But what if you live in a towering apartment block rather than a leafy community that has the space for a battery?  

Marnie Shaw: Yeah, I think shared energy storage is perfect for apartments, and especially in big cities where people don’t have the room, don’t have the opportunity to install their own batteries. In practice, it’s a little tricky with apartments, because they have a shared meter, electricity meter. So the regulations around providing energy from a battery are a little bit more complicated. But because it’s such an obvious use case of shared energy storage, that I’m sure that moving forward, those rules will be adapted to make sure that part of our society has access to shared battery storage.

Andy Saunders (Host): Marnie’s convinced community batteries will play a role beside grid scale and residential batteries. And they’ll also provide what’s called energy equity. 

Marnie Shaw: Yeah, so we see neighborhood scale batteries as a way to improve energy equity in our energy system moving forward. One issue we have in our energy system at the moment is that some people have been able to install solar panels and have their electricity bills substantially reduced. But other people might not have had the opportunity to install solar and have the benefits of both, you know, being able to access the renewable energy as well as have the reduced bills. So if we install neighborhood scale storage in suburbs, it could provide a way for us to share that solar energy around the suburb. So say, if I had solar panels on my house, but you didn’t have them on your house, and we’re in the same neighborhood, my solar energy could be stored in the battery, and then could provide the energy to power your house later in the evening. So it’s a way to share around the solar energy within the suburb and provide more people in that suburb with access to renewable energy. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Like a lot of people you’ve heard from in this series, Marnie’s research is also motivated by a desire to do good for the planet’s future. Imagine when the planet grows up and starts driving and going to school, I am going to worry endlessly ‘cause I love it so much.

Marnie Shaw: I really love the idea that I’m contributing in some way, maybe some very small way to helping achieve that goal. I mean, it’s not a difficult goal. We can electrify our energy system pretty easily without too much inconvenience. And we have all the technology in place, to do so. So I just want to be part of the solution in making sure it’s implemented as quickly as possible. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Back in our homes, the number of houses with batteries is already increasing. More and more of us are looking for ways to store that renewable energy we’re generating to use later on. And many are making that choice because we want to make a difference. Remember Dom Pym from our very first episode? He’s the co-founder of the digital bank Up and like Marnie, has other motivating interests. Please let it be my invention of the 34 pocket pants, I need a victim – investor I mean, investor.   

Dom Pym: Sort of save the planet type things, you know, anything to do this alternative or interesting, that, you know, sort of looks generations ahead. I’m also interested in that sort of stuff as well.

Andy Saunders (Host): No surprise then that Dom’s installed a battery in his home. Wonder if he has pants with more than 4 pockets? 

Dom Pym: Oh, yeah. 100%. So I have two Tesla power walls. I was an early adopter. So I got the first version, and now I’m on the new the second version, or the third version, or whatever it is now. And so we have, we have two and the thing that opened my mind the most was the animations inside the app and the analytics that were just on tap right, so I was able to open the Tesla app, scroll over from my car and see my batteries and see you know what energy I was generating from the solar, how much I was storing, how I was using it, and then I was able to just with a flick of a switch, turn on the backup.

Andy Saunders (Host): Dom fit thirty one solar panels on his roof, the maximum he could, to fill up both batteries during the day, to run his house at night. And, connected to a three-phase charger that also charges his electric car quickly. This guy is serious.  

Dom Pym: You know, I’m able to, I’m able to store the solar power in the batteries, charge the car, and then drive around clean. You know, whenever I like. And we take the Tesla on all of our trips with us the last couple of years, we haven’t done any, obviously. But you know, we’ve been to Tassie, we’ve been to Adelaide, we’ve been to Brisbane, we’ve been to Sydney, like, we’ll just go everywhere with it, and it’s just no problem at all. So at home, that’s amazing. Out and about with the electric car, it’s amazing. And I think I mean, it’s absolutely the future. And I’m just, I’m surprised that it’s taken so long, like decades for us, you know, this technology is not that new storing power in a battery pack, you know, solar panels, you know, electric cars. Electric cars are from the 1800s, you know, loads, it’s just taken us decades and decades for it to get sort of mass consumer adoption, but actually think that everyone will be driving around and electric cars, everyone will have battery backup, and everybody will be using a solar or wind or some other form of, you know, renewable energy in the future. And so it’s just about the journey from here to there.

Andy Saunders (Host): As our adoption of batteries is increasing, we’re going to need to make more of them. Australia is one of the biggest producers of lithium in the world – one of the key ingredients in battery manufacturing. So it’s probably no surprise that there are companies out there looking to make premium home batteries, right here. Not here, here, but here in, you get it. 

Bradley Paton: My name is Bradley Payton. I’m the CEO at PowerPlus Energy, we manufacture lithium ferro phosphate batteries for the solar and off grid industry.

Andy Saunders (Host): Bradley was interested in electronics from a young age. And he’s worked as an industrial salesman on solving people’s power problems. That was around the time the idea of manufacturing lithium batteries occurred. Talk about timing.

Bradley Paton: So I sort of formed a friendship with a chap, my now business partner, and we started to explore how we could design and build something. Initially, we were looking to get it built in China, because that obviously has an attraction, price wise. However, we found that by building it here, we had more control, it allowed us to innovate. And we’re able to choose quality components, and design a product that suited what the market wanted. 

Andy Saunders (Host): And PowerPlus was born. My favorite avenger.

Bradley Paton: We registered the trading name, we registered the website eating $1 hotdogs outside IKEA. And that was sort of four and a half years ago.

Andy Saunders (Host): PowerPlus have their own engineering, research and development teams and they manufacture about seventy percent of the battery, except for the cells, locally. 

Bradley Paton: So we use Lithium Ferro Phosphate, we use cylindrical cells because they’re more stable and last longer. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Most of us are familiar with Lithium-Ion batteries, that’s what we all have in our phones and laptops. Manufacturers love them because of their energy density – that’s how much energy you can pack into each cell. But they have a number of issues – Lithium-Ion batteries can catch fire if damaged, and often rely on rare metals like cobalt. They can also be difficult to recycle. Like my hair.

Andy Saunders (Host): LFP or Lithium Ferro Phosphate is one type of battery that is making waves. They are also known as ‘Lithium Iron’ – that’s Iron – not Ion – and don’t rely on the same rare-earth metals as batteries in your phone. I’ll keep referring to them as LFPs so we don’t get confused. I mean Oh my God right or OMG, you get it.

Bradley Paton: They’ll say, we can do 20,000 cycles, so it’s gonna last for 20 years, or we can charge in 30 minutes. But it’s like trying to sell a Ferrari to a mother that is doing the shopping or taking the kids to school. Yes, it’s got a better zero to 60 than the Holden Commodore or the, you know, the family SUV. But you don’t need to get zero to 60 to take your kids to school or to do the shopping, you need a family wagon to do the shopping. And that’s why LFP at the moment ticks those boxes. It’s the family wagon, that’s going to give you the watts when you need it in a reliable fashion, it’s going to last a long time, it’s going to be easy to maintain, it’s not going to break the bank. So in my mind commercially at the moment, it’s the go-to technology.

Andy Saunders (Host): So that part of the battery, the lithium cell, is imported from China, but Bradley wants to make as much of the battery locally as possible.  

Bradley Paton: The metal work is made here for our cases, is made here in Melbourne. We use Australian made copper cables. Our BMS boards are now being made in Australia. Our packaging is made here. Our copper busbars in our cabinets are made here. Everything that we can source locally we do. And we make all our own cable assemblies here in the factory. The focus is on Australian made as much as we can.

Andy Saunders (Host): Being locally manufactured and providing local support teams is  important to Bradley. He sees it as the defining ethos of PowerPlus. Okay that’s way too close to superhero jargon and that’s not even a joke.

Bradley Paton: Plus we put Chupa Chups in every pallet that goes out. 

Andy Saunders (Host): And apparently, supplying Chupa Chups is important as well.

Bradley Paton: The installers are sometimes more disappointed if the storemans forgot to put the Chupa Chups on, than if he’s gotten the order wrong shipping out the batteries.

Andy Saunders (Host): Once they have gathered all the materials, and a few boxes of Chupa Chups, the batteries are assembled. When Bradley first started PowerPlus, his office was a small rented storage unit. Today, PowerPlus operates out of  a warehouse with about sixty employees, including some of Bradley’s eight – yes eightchildren. 

Bradley Paton: So now on the quiet month, we’ll build sort of, you know, 1000 to 1500 batteries, and with the new expansion our capacity is about four and a half, 4800 batteries a month. That’s about the limit of what we can do on this site here. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Like Dom, Bradley also has a battery at home. Although it doesn’t power the house at night…. I like the dark anyway.

Bradley Paton: I’ve been married for 39 years, I’ve never owned a petrol lawnmower.

Andy Saunders (Host): A lead acid battery powers Bradley’s electric lawn mower…for the moment. 

Bradley Paton: I’ve already tagged some 48 Volt Lithium replacements that’ll be going in just after Christmas… I have my own electric vehicle with an electric charging port that’s charged by solar… It does have a USB port, I can plug my phone in and listen to podcasts while I’m driving as well.

Andy Saunders (Host): Give us a wave Bradley!

Bradley Paton: And it’s got a little box on the side that I can put my Chupa Chups. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Of course it has a little box for Chupa Chups! Well played Bradley, well played.

Andy Saunders (Host): Next week on So Watt – Virtual Power Plants. 

Wow, just a few weeks ago we learnt where power came from and now we’re launching into the future. Time-shift! Technology and artificial intelligence is enabling the creation of virtual power plants, allowing your renewable energy to be stored, and then exported to the grid when it’s actually needed.

Marc Niemes: I get little text messages from the virtual power plant when it says congratulations we’ve taken five kilowatts from you and given it to your neighbour to use but don’t worry, we’re charging your batteries now, sort of thing. So you’re never – you never lose in the situation. You just haven’t bought something, some power at 30 cents, you’ve given it to your neighbour. So all other things being equal, you’ve done some environmental good by not having to basically go and get power from a long distance away. 

Andy Saunders (Host):  Join us next week for Episode Six.

Andy Saunders (Host): So Watt is the show that questions everything you thought you knew about energy and it’s brought to you by Origin. 

Andy Saunders (Host): Production and scripting by the team at Lawson Media.

Andy Saunders (Host): If you’re keen to know more about batteries – I’ve stored some resources in the episode show notes.

Andy Saunders (Host): You can also learn more about the podcast and listen to other episodes at originenergy.com.au/sowatt, and if you love the show… why not share it with a friend… over a Chupa Chup.
Andy Saunders (Host): I’m Andy Saunders and I’m off to get a Chupa Chup! Bradley, get over here!!