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Meet the Innovators: Johnson Fernandes, CEO, Equiwatt

The founder and chief executive of energy management specialist Equiwatt Johnson Fernandes discusses the opportunities and challenges of unlocking the power of consumers on the net-zero journey.

What was your first job in the utilities sector?

Founding and building Equiwatt is my first involvement in utilities. I think it was a blessing in disguise to enter the sector without previous experience. I was able to bring a fresh perspective and outsider view to the challenge of reducing peak-time energy demand through residential demand side response (rDSR).

The hurdles to solving that challenge are well known in the industry and were founded in early research trials when the market wasn’t ready for change. The complexity of engaging households and proving the feasibility of rDSR has evolved but I believe it would have been more difficult to disrupt if I had been surrounded by a community who didn’t believe it could be done.

What work experience or qualifications did you have before moving into the industry?

I was fortunate to be supported by Newcastle University in both my studies and founding Equiwatt. I have a BTech Electronics and Communication engineering, an MSc in IoT and a PhD in energy efficient microchip design.

Arguably though, my most valuable experience was the first-hand impact I felt of power cuts and blackouts as a child. It inspired both my studies and the belief that Equiwatt would be part of the smart grid solution.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

Recognition from peers is always a humbling, life affirming experience and in 2018 I was very proud to be recognised as a world leader in digital technology by the UK Government as part of Tech Nation’s Global Talent Visa Award.

What is the most significant way that today’s utilities sector differs from the one you first joined?

The energy sector crisis of the last 18 months has seen an unprecedented generational shift in its makeup. Less suppliers, the democratisation of smart meter data, extraordinary market forces driving heightened power generation costs and critical net zero ambitions are just a few major events that are shaping future opportunities.

The most significant difference in the sector now is the increasing openness to innovate, embrace technology and support alternative ways to better manage our energy needs. There is still a long way to go but there has definitely been a significant shift since I became involved in the sector.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your time in utilities?

It is challenging and often difficult to get the traction with large energy companies to support trials of rDSR with end users. We have done it the hard way and marketed directly to consumers to build up a community of highly engaged users.

The energy companies have not been helped by the slow speed at which policy and regulation around rDSR has developed alongside previously insufficient government funding to enable research. The current energy crisis is something that none of us want to see happening but it has at least shone a light on why it is so important to drive an investment stepchange into our energy system and enable us to play catchup.

What is your golden rule for overcoming challenges at work generally?

I am naturally a positive person so I address challenges head on with the same attitude. For me, I focus on collecting the right insights with our team to help identify the solution. If a situation is particularly challenging then I find it valuable to have friendly, independent advisors who can provide an alternative view.

Planning towards how we execute on a solution with pace in the most effective way is then a critical part of the process. This is where many technology companies fail. We face challenges every day, particularly unforeseen ones but it is about how you deal with them that makes a difference and builds resilience in the long term.

How would you describe your creative process in three words?

Vision, consumer-first, holistic

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Knowing your audience and target market well enough to be able to customise your message and ask every time is the most valuable advice I use on a regular basis.

Which piece of technology, or app, could you not function without?

My Onto app. We lease EVs for the business and regularly change models to help experience the variety of cars our customers use and help test the best way to help them smart charge. Without the Onto app (or more importantly, a connected device to use it on), we would be a bit stuck. Having said that, they do now provide vehicle keys as a backup!

What do you think is the key to creating the conditions for innovation within the utilities sector?

Actively continuing to adopt a culture of openness, accessibility and inclusive communication within the community would encourage collaboration and learning to accelerate innovative projects. This could be through growing initiatives like incubated innovation hubs that actively bring together contributors from within and outside of the sector. It could also be through minimised red-tape that enables access to such facilities or funding alongside industry friendly legislation that supports a common purpose; this is especially importance to start-ups like ourselves who can bring differentiated thinking to the table.

Personally speaking, the one thing that would benefit Equiwatt and businesses like us most is access to customers who are open to adopting and trialling new innovations. As a relatively unknown startup, we have to work hard to build credibility with potential end users but wider industry support that provides endorsement or access to trial customers is invaluable.

Which other industry do you feel that utilities can learn most from when creating the conditions for innovation?

I find inspiration in observing what is happening in Fintech. By providing open data and open banking, breaking down operational silos and a willingness to invest in and embrace new technology trials, the financial services sector has seen positive and material disruption over the past ten years. Importantly, regulatory bodies have had a big part to play in this.

The power of automation in financial services has been huge and is continuing to develop beyond simple processes to more advanced and fully explainable decisioning technology. By providing cloud based platforms with the tools to rapidly develop, we have seen solutions drive efficient scale alongside vastly improved consumer engagement.

Is there a standout innovation or collaboration project that you’ve worked on during your time in utilities – what made it special?

In 2020 we were part of the Energy Systems Catapult Energy Launchpad. They recognised the potential of our solution to unlock residential demand side response in supporting energy suppliers and system/network operators to achieve efficiencies . The programme had a material impact on our ability to prepare for further investment and scale our user base.

We were able to access technology, commercial, marketing and research experts with hands-on industry experience and an understanding of the energy sector that has become invaluable. At all stages, we were able to collaborate with the teams to co-create in depth plans, develop propositions, identify partnerships and acquire insights that really helped validate what we are doing.

What excites you most about the next 10 years in the utilities sector – any trends, tech or specific innovations?

The thing that excites me most and is closest to my heart is the potential for consumers at home to have greater accessibility to building virtual power plants (VPP). We have been evangelising about this potential for more than two years at Equiwatt and it was brilliant to hear the National Grid bring VPP’s into the public consciousness as part of their most recent demand flexibility trial announcements.

Consumer behavioural change will play a big part in households collectively acting together to create both national and local VPP’s. Once this trend gathers pace, we have the potential to realise a multitude of system benefits from absorbing excess wind or solar energy and avoiding curtailment to household level storage from EV’s or batteries providing a contribution when the grid is in need. And of course one of the most pertinent benefits could be our ability to avoid the reported worse case blackouts we are being threatened with this winter.

What do you think will be the defining factor in the UK hitting its net zero targets?

Many households remain unaware as to the major contribution they can make to net zero targets. We have been reporting and talking about the importance of consumer engagement in the utilities sector for years. Helping households to make the connection between their energy consumption and the stability of energy supply and carbon footprint is vital.

We are seeing government led initiatives across Europe to help raise consumer awareness of how the timing of energy use and saving energy collectively can impact our current challenges. I would like to see this level of awareness created in the UK. Not only will it help with immediate winter challenges, but it will also help inform why we need to transition to more renewable energy and how we can balance its usage through demand flexibility at both a household and business level.

What is the change you’d most like to see within the utilities industry?

Helping consumers at home to more easily understand, manage and save energy better is a critical part of building engagement with consumers. Smart meters have been a useful step but there is still a disconnect between how and when appliances are used versus what you see on your IHD. Easy to use smart technology and apps can help bridge that gap through surfacing data in meaningful ways that help link energy usage actions to both household level cost and CO2.

We already have the capability to help homes automate their energy usage according to grid needs or CO2 intensity. Endorsement by the industry of such technology that can run conveniently in the background to use or save energy when it matters can become a norm that would be almost inexcusable if not adopted.

How do you feel utilities companies can collaborate more – or more effectively?

I would like to see more initiatives bring together a broader network of businesses to design demonstrator projects and collaboratively contribute to learning. The recent Crowdflex trial between National Grid and Octopus energy is an excellent example that provided useful shared learning for all involved in rDSR.

Our current involvement in Project Leo in Oxfordshire is another good example of businesses and innovators who can add value to pioneering local flex trials (irrespective of size or presence) being encouraged to come forward. The project will generate rich and varied insights that will help build our understanding of the potential for localised energy demand management.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the utilities sector at present?

The energy utilities companies have had to ride an unprecedented wave of change (Covid and Ukraine being beyond their control), manage the administration of millions more inherited customers and prepare for the kind of winter we have not seen for a generation. It is all a huge undertaking. The biggest challenge is how they navigate these immediate challenges whilst at the same time innovating towards an energy system that reduces our reliance on volatile and polluting energy sources and ensures that access to the basic rights of energy are affordable to all.

What is the most significant way you think the utilities sector of ten years’ time will differ from the one we see today?

Utility companies will become technology companies and technology companies will venture into utility services. Opportunities will continue to be presented through initiatives like smart metering and open energy data whilst greater awareness and regulatory change have the potential to unlock efficiency and environmental benefits for both consumers and businesses.