UK big data start-up works with Britain’s community renewables movement to change energy procurement

A UK start-up based in London’s Tech City is developing a renewable energy peer-to-peer online marketplace to bring fairer, greener and cheaper energy to all.

As reported by Greenwise Business, Open Utility, co-founded by James Johnston and Andy Kilner, is marrying big data technology with Britain’s growing community renewables movement to change the way we buy and sell energy. The marketplace allows consumers to buy their energy from local, renewable sources if they choose to, and for producers to work out where they can strike the best deals to sell at.

The start-up was recently awarded £10,000 from British Gas in its 'Connecting Homes’ competition that aims to support energy innovation, and has just launched its first trial with a community energy project in Cornwall. A further £50,000 grant to further refine its solution is in the pipeline from a charity that can’t yet been named for legal reasons.

"Our vision is to create a marketplace which is primarily focused on serving small-scale, independent and community producers and consumers, as well as small businesseseventually," Johnston told GreenWise. "At ther moment there is no uswitch or marketplace where you can go and work out where you can get your best Feed-in Tariff deal or PPA [Power Purchase Agreement], its very one to one negotiations behind closed doors. We want to create a really true marketplace where producers can set their own prices and sell directly to the end consumers – a system that allows consumers to choose to get their power directly from lots of different sources at cost could open up a lot of amazing things. The challenge is regulations and software – and we’ve got the software."

Both Johnston and Kilner come from technology backgrounds. Johnston has spent the last three years researching smart grid technologies as part of his PhD, while Kilner is a programming expert who led the development of the Carbon Culture platform, which reduces energy use through behaviour change in the workplace.

To overcome regulatory challenges, Open Utility is looking to partner with it first energy retailer. "We are talking with a few and the aim is to get the first one hooked within the next three months," Johnston explains.

Open to working with Big Six
Although it will be important the retail partner shares the same values as Open Utility, Johnston is not ruling out working with one of the Big Six. He says the solution he and Kilner have to offer presents opportunities for both big and small players in the marketplace. "For small ones, they want to acquire new customers and for the Big Six, they want to retain customers. We can unlock customers – from housing association to business chains to community users. But engaging customers by giving them more control builds trust, so there could be something there for the Big Six too," he suggests.

The number of community energy projects across the UK is growing rapidly thanks in part to Government funding, lighter regulation and a growing desire among individuals to invest in good causes’ at the same time as see a return on their investment. Ethex, the new online exchange for positive investments, estimates community renewables in the UK currently total £30 million in total. The £5.8 million Westmill Solar Cooperative, is the largest, but more are coming on stream all the time.

Cornwall trial
Open Utility is trialing its software with a community energy project in Gorran, on the south coast of Cornwall, with the help of local cooperative, Community Power Cornwall.

"Community Power Cornwall helped 'Transition Gorran’ set up a community group where a 100 members in village invested in two wind turbines at the top of the hill and what they really want to do is to buy back some of the power directly from the turbines they’ve invested in," explains Johnston. "The idea is that we are building the user interface and website, we’ve got a designer, Alice Tyler, on loan to us from a design agency called Mint and she is helping Andy on building this part of the project."

The trial is due to be completed by December and once it’s got its first utility partner on board, Open will begin looking for seed funding to accelerate the growth of the business, Johnston said.

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