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Interview: How Origin Energy uses AWS to transform its business

29 Nov 2018

Origin Energy is an Australian electricity retailer that is on the cutting edge of customer service, collaboration, innovation, and experimentation.

At AWS re:Invent this week, we chatted with Cameron Briggs, general manager of Future Energy for Origin Energy. He runs a team based out of Sydney, and lives in the heart of Silicon Valley.

His team is to find the best people, partners, technologies, and business models that will shape a changing and vastly different energy landscape in the next decade.

“It's a really interesting time to be an energy provider. There’s a number of different things going on that are impacting both how we're going to think about anything in terms where and how we use data, and also in terms of customer interactions. Technology macro events are also having a huge impact.”

So how does an energy provider like Origin end up embracing Amazon Web Services (AWS)? Briggs explains the journey that helped the company get there.

Nobody knows what the future of energy will look like, but there will be a number of things driving change, he says.

There are moves to decarbonise the energy sector. There's a big push in terms of decentralised energy, and increasing amount of data and digitisation,” Briggs says.

“Having the skill sets around being able to coordinate and utilise data is really important. It's also important to be able to communicate and coordinate different devices that might exist within the home, particularly from an energy point of view.”

“We started the journey with AWS a couple of years ago. What we were doing at the time was unrelated – it was more about coordinating information that we needed to run our normal risk meetings. The meetings look at the different factors that are impacting a business.”

Origin wanted to centralise disparate information that had been collated for those monthly meetings, including information that had been printed and given to people.

“Centralising that data meant you are sitting there and making decisions quickly and in real time. That’s where the journey with AWS started.”

“The benefits of actually having a predefined data strategy were being able to access and coordinated data sets with the business and seeing how efficient that made utilising that data.”

Apply that to future energy, when there are a number of different solutions and experimentation to see what works and what doesn’t.

“What we liked about AWS is the ability to turn things on off very quickly without having months and months of mobilisation time; and without having fixed costs.”

“You can try something for two hours and if it works, fantastic. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter – you can just turn it off.”

He adds that Origin Energy’s work with AWS has been around solving problems – not pushing products.

“We come in and say, ‘here's something we're trying to do’. They say, 'here's some Lego bricks that you can use. Maybe that might be a really good solution. More than that, here are two or three other companies that are trying to do similar things – why don’t you spend some time with them?'”

“That’s consistent with what we're trying to do part of that growth in Origin. We actively work with other energy companies around the world to share what we're doing, to learn from them to learn and to teach from our perspective.”

Business process, innovation, collaboration, forward thinking, flexibility and scalability are all key aspects of Origin Energy’s approach.

“It's a problem solving approach – let’s just try something. And because of the way it works, you can just do that without necessarily agonising over a particular decision.”

In addition to centralising information, AWS plays an important back-end role in consolidating customer data, particularly for gen-tailers like Origin.

“The more information you have, and the more you can access it, the more you can look at functionality, performance, and maintenance,” Briggs says.

He adds that new technologies and distributed generation like solar panels, batteries, electric vehicle chargers and in-home devices all require customer management.

They will not only shape the products and services that Origin offers, but will also be a way of increasing or decreasing costs as more renewable energy panels are introduced to the sector.

When customers get home and turn on light switches and devices, they’re not necessarily aware of what impact that has on the network, or the wholesale prices.

“Australia has one of the one of the most volatile energy markets in the world in this big swings in terms of the wholesale price.”

This is where energy monitoring and usage can affect on-peak or off-peak pricing charges. Notifications to customers about efficient energy usage need to be based off data.

"Once we set up a data lake with AWS we were able to get the information to the company much faster. It’s another example of how systems can optimise services for customers.”

“You might say here, we want to say there's an incentive not to run your air conditioner between five and six o'clock every day. If you have data that can be accessed and coordinated in an efficient, user-friendly way, that makes innovations much less complex.”

Briggs adds that while the idea of collaboration and innovation to this extent may be a slightly different model to what traditional energy companies are used to, they must now start to be a little less protective of what they do.

For us we’re evolving our thinking, changing how we want to do things. I live in Silicon Valley, I share an office with three other energy companies as four of us sitting working together. It’s all part of a general theme about what brings us together. We want to help each other solve some of these problems. And by sharing, you get a better end outcome.”