Post-COP26: In conversation with… Alice Taylor, co-founder of energy flexibility marketplace, Piclo
We discuss what a marketplace for flexibility is and its powerful role in resolving the current and future challenges of a renewable energy grid.
Scotland is becoming a literal powerhouse for renewable energy, with an astounding 97% of its power coming from renewables in 2020, third in Europe after only Iceland and Norway. Amid this success, it is easy to overlook the challenges of managing a more complex electricity grid where there are more sources of energy production with variable output dependent on environmental conditions like wind, sun and rainfall.
To shine a light on this overlooked part of the green energy transition we are speaking today with Alice Tyler, co-founder and CPO of the energy marketplace for flexibility (don’t worry, we will explain exactly what that is!), Piclo. With a background in user-centred design after graduating from Glasgow School of Art and working at Mint Digital, Alice has applied her razor sharp problem solving skills and experience in design to co-found this innovative marketplace within an incredibly complex industry.
Will Brown: Let’s kick off by telling us about Piclo and what its mission is?
Alice Tyler: Our mission is to transition to a world that has an abundant source of clean energy and we intend to push that vision forward by providing a marketplace for flexibility. We want a world powered by renewable energy but that can seem like a hardware problem. We’re software experts, so we asked ourselves, how can software be applied to be part of the solution?
WB: What is a marketplace for flexibility?
AT: Our current product, the marketplace for flexibility, arose as a software solution because the electricity network operators have some real transition problems in the way that energy is being used differently. The amount of energy generated at a massive power station and what was being used at the other end used to be an easy equation. However, now it’s not so easy because electricity is being generated at all sorts of points and it’s being used in different ways. It used to be that you would just upgrade the hardware of the electricity grid (reinforcing the pipes and wires), but that’s not very sustainable across the whole grid because you might only have a problem with too much or too little generation or demand for say 10% of the time. One of the key solutions to that problem is that network operators need to work with assets on the grid to use them as part of a balancing process. So there was a great opportunity for us to use our knowledge about software and marketplace design and build a marketplace that helps the network providers procure what we call ‘flexibility providers’ that can help balance the grid. So that’s people or companies that manage assets on the grid like electric car charging points or the buildings for large supermarkets. For example, a great piece of flexibility on the network is a big supermarket that has hundreds and hundreds of fridges in it, and you can turn down the fridges for half an hour when the grid needs it, without having any impact on the food safety. Now that’s a massive value to the grid.
WB: How has the energy landscape changed between when Piclo [formerly, Open Utility] was founded in 2013 and now?
AT: A major thing that is changing is regulation. OFGEM, which is the regulator in this industry, is watching this space of flexible marketplaces as regulation can take a really long time to change in this industry. So although network operators were encouraged to use flexibility, Ofgem didn’t tell anyone how to do it and it didn’t set any rules. It’s watching us, it’s watching our competitors and it’s watching the networks. Flexibility is a young market and so this has given the sector the scope to learn-by-doing.
They essentially want to see how it settles. But enough has been proven now that Ofgem is really starting to commit to flexibility, giving confidence to the industry to start investing more.
WB: Human-centred design seems like an important part of Piclo creating an innovative service, tell me about that and the role of design in Piclo?
AT: Yeah, it’s fundamental. It has been one of the reasons why we’ve gotten this far because it gives us a USP that our competitors often overlook. Our competitors might have clever engineers and amazing project managers, maybe even better sales than us, but we have many people who would say that our product is better because it’s been designed with humans in mind, as a result of applying user centered design thinking and processes to that product.
WB: What is your advice to others looking to create positive change within the energy sector?
AT: From the founder’s perspective, I would suggest that they don’t try to do it on their own. It is an incredibly hard industry to innovate in. Navigating this industry needs knowledge of policy and regulation. I would suggest that if you think you’ve got a good idea for a product in the industry, partner with at least one other person who brings a very different skill set to yourself, someone who likes policy and likes regulation and can read a 200 page policy document, because that’s the kind of stuff in this industry you need to be able to do because of the regulation element. I know this from the experience of onboarding new team members into this business. You have to teach them about the product. You have to teach them about how this business works. You have to teach them about the whole industry, because nobody really understands how this industry works until you start digging into it.
That is one point. I would also try to find businesses where you really agree with what they’re doing. I would look for those businesses and apply for those jobs. The hard thing about the design skill set is that very few companies realize that they are missing it, which is tricky because there would be so many more design jobs in the energy industry. So, look at all of the roles and consider the skills and what their needs are. And then maybe you can have a conversation with them saying, “Hey, look, I’ve seen this role. You’re looking for these things. I’ve got perhaps two thirds of that, but I would bring all these other things that you haven’t even thought that you need.”
WB: That was great and I think very useful for others to learn from. Any closing comments?
AT: Don’t be put off by the size and scale of the energy sector. Just start small and see where it can take you. Something I see lots of friends kind of grappling with is this conundrum: “if I didn’t know about the climate crisis, I would be doing X or Y because I wouldn’t be worried about it, but now I am, so now I am worried about it.” There’s a lot of people grappling with that. So I think my closing comment is don’t beat yourself up. So if you’re not as interested in solving complex energy sector problems that’s OK. Find a problem that does interest you. Because if you don’t have that drive to get to the bottom of problems in the energy sector, you’ll find it 10 times harder than it needs to be. So, find a problem that you would be happy to work really hard on. It might be plastic waste, or it might be behaviour change. I don’t enjoy working on behaviour change challenges, but someone else out there might find that problem really interesting. There’s a problem out there for everyone, you just have to find the one for you.
WB: Great, thanks for sharing your valuable perspective, much appreciated!
TA: All the best!