Kaluza’s director of sustainability, market development and energy policy, Marzia Zafar, reflects on her 26 years in the utilities sector, the need to rethink the role of energy companies, and innovating quickly in response to market demands.

What was your first job in the utilities sector and what work experience or qualifications did you have?

I studied business in California and was recruited by Southern California Gas Company straight out of university after coming across them at a careers fair. It was a great first step for me as it was a large company which allowed me to move around and learn about the industry from various perspectives.

The business also had a strong social agenda and gave me the platform to discover my true passion for local policy building. It’s safe to say this first job shaped the rest of my career!

What has been your career highlight thus far?

Working on California’s Energy Action Plan right after the 2000/01 energy crisis and also developing the rules and regulations for transportation network companies (e.g. Uber and Lyft).

In both cases, the highlight for me was working on the end-customer journey – identifying the different levers that would empower them to make small changes in their behaviour that benefited them as individuals but also broader benefit society.

How would you describe your creative process in three words?

Reading, listening and leading

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

‘Keep pushing for change’

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

Governments and regulators need to set a clear vision and create the market design for that vision to become reality. We should create a level playing field for new technology innovation to thrive with a keen focus on results.

Currently, too many barriers prevent the scaling of proven technology. The market needs to be more open to embracing innovation and focused on promoting better data visibility between customers, retailers and network operators.

Additionally, if we are able to innovate and implement more freely then we will create an ecosystem that attracts and develops top talent.

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

During my time at the World Energy Council, I soon learnt that in order for us to successfully harness wind, solar and other green generation to power society, we must be able to store energy effectively and use it in a far more dynamic way.

I think the ability to intelligently shift energy demand across millions of homes and turn residential customers into active participants of the energy system will be key for the UK hitting net zero.

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

Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging is set to be a true game-changer in the energy sector.

The idea that all the electric cars could charge and discharge in a way that creates financial rewards for drivers and enables the grid to run resiliently, off fully renewable power is, for me, mind-blowing. Even more mind-blowing is the fact that through Kaluza’s work in the world’s first and largest domestic rollout of V2G, we have proven that it works and the benefits are there for the taking.

By leveraging domestic flexibility, through innovations like V2G we can turn entire homes into mini power plants and achieve the decentralised, democratised system we are all aspiring to.

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

In the last few months we have seen over twenty energy companies go bust. This is a crisis that requires more than a short-term fix, but a fundamental redesign of how our system works.

Specifically, rethinking the role of energy companies and how they can do more than just survive as kWh providers but actually thrive as energy customers’ decarbonisation partners.

Evolving these business models will be extremely difficult if many of these companies continue to have a risk-averse attitude towards technology and the change it could bring.

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

Today, the energy experience is stuck in the stone age. In three years’ time,  energy will have finally entered the digital age and be providing far more engaging and personalised experiences to energy customers.

Instead of monthly paper bills which are often incorrect, in the years to come we will see technology completely change how energy companies interact with their customers, similar to the evolution in banking.

To get there we need energy companies to focus on innovating quickly in response to market demands and modern customer needs, this requires moving away from decades-old IT systems and embracing new technology.

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