The UK’s energy suppliers are operating in a landscape of intense competition with 54 active utilities providers in the market, according to Ofgem, the growing appeal of solar panels and batteries to store the energy they produce, as well as the looming possibility of a government-legislated energy price cap. To help it figure out how to respond to changing markets and identify new opportunities, EDF Energy set up an innovation accelerator called Blue Lab, which is built around four departments; innovation, innovation partnerships, connected home, and energy services and new business.
John Hutchins, had previously helped to set up the analysis and insight team in the energy company’s sales and marketing division, but for the past five months he has been head of connected home at Blue Lab. Hutchins said that the strategy of Blue Lab is to get as many ideas as possible from as many sources as possible to solve both customer pain points and business pain points with the ultimate goal being to “become the trusted co-pilot in your home.”
One of the things he and his team have come up with is intelligent call centre routing. This uses artificial intelligence and pattern recognition on customer phone calls to reduce the number of complaints and the amount of bad debt. Another is customer insight, by which they can give relevant offers. “This perspective comes from customers wanting us to use their data to be more relevant to them,” he explained
Data-driven services is the most exciting aspect of what Hutchins and his team are doing as they are looking at how, with consent, they can give personalised advice. For example, if a customer allows EDF to connect with their home insurer, their behaviour in terms of how they use energy could affect how much of a risk the user is seen to be by the insurer.
“If we can access some of that value by sharing data and giving that value back to the customers, either through lower premia or lower tariffs, that’s really valuable,” he said.
His department is mandated to roll out smart meters to EDF’s home customers and give them an in-home display (IHD) which shows them real-time data. “We’re attempting to roll out an IHD with a wifi chip in it that sends data back to us and into our cloud so that we can start doing some more interesting and innovative stuff with it.” There are currently 400 EDF customers trialling these chipped smart meters.
“If someone’s on holiday and suddenly the lights switch on, we can ping you an alert.”
Hutchins and his team have built a data platform to download and store all that data and have developed a mobile app that allows people to visualise their data. However, the next step is to be able to show customers how much energy they are using and what it is costing them in real-time with the aim that they will be able to show the cost of running a particular appliance, such as a kettle.
By learning about a customer through their energy consumption habits, he and his team can get a picture of what is normal and what is not, which can feed into home security. As he described it, “if someone’s on holiday and suddenly the lights switch on, we can ping you an alert.”
He went on to say that an energy company that has a clear idea of normal usage can act as an appliance monitor, alerting the customer to unusual energy consumption by their fridge, for example. “If we can see that your fridge is using loads of energy and it really shouldn’t be, we can say, 'you might need a new fridge, yours is about to go wrong',” he said.
Hutchins admitted that an energy provider could cross the line to being creepy and start making suggestions that are borderline judgemental, based on a customer’s routine, such as, “you’re watching too much TV,” or, “when was the last time went out and got some fresh air?”
In contrast, such close monitoring could benefit the friends or relatives of people who are elderly or otherwise vulnerable and live alone. Blue Lab is working with a start-up that can put sensors in the home of an older person and allow someone else to see, through an app, how active that person is around their home. This would eliminate the need for the older person to carry around a panic button and provide reassurance to those who care about them.
Hutchins said: “We’re working on being able to link that back to a smart meter which can give you practically the same information, about what time someone rises and goes to bed and you can see that with fairly good accuracy.”
He concluded by illustrating the trade-off between privacy and safety when it comes to the convienience that in-home energy monitoring could offer: “That sounds a bit scary, but some of these use cases are driven by a clear pain point. Suddenly, information sensitivity and confidentiality fall out of the window because someone is worried about knowing that you’re OK.”