Tim McCready sat down with Vector chief executive Simon Mackenzie to discuss the future of Auckland's energy sector, and beyond.

"It's almost like we're back to the future," explains Vector chief executive Simon Mackenzie as he discusses the energy industry's shift towards distributed energy systems.

It's a future Mackenzie seems relatively at ease with, despite it completely disrupting the business models of the industry in which Vector operates as a distributor.

"The whole investment focus is now turning to: how do we utilise technology in the energy sector to still deliver energy in an affordable, yet renewable, sense?" explains Mackenzie.

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"We're seeing a huge tipping point in terms of customers driving what they require from energy."

Where energy is currently generated at a centralised location — say, a dam — and then transmitted via the national grid to distributors such as Vector, increasingly customers are gaining the ability to generate the energy themselves, within — or on top of — their homes.

This shift has been driven and accelerated by global initiatives to reduce the use of fossil fuels from transport and energy sources in response to the threat of climate change.

And while the lack of international progress on emission reduction targets is often lamented, beneath the surface there has been significant subsidies provided for the development of renewable energy generation and a reduction in the price of technologies, such as solar panels.

"The customer has choice and may send energy back out to others, but even in urban environments they still probably need to move that energy around within the urban environments."

In this context, says Mackenzie, "transmission and generation are becoming more and more commoditised. At some point in time it will be there more for a backup, or segmented needs."

The position of Vector as a distribution company — downstream from those increasingly commoditised sectors — appears to be enabling the company to embrace the disruption.

"There's a desire for more physical solutions — things like solar and batteries and the like — but I think one of the other sides is that we're now seeing the convergence of transport coming into energy with electric vehicles, and that whole infrastructure to support that," he says.

"Essentially, an electric vehicle could also be a mobile battery that you connect into your home, so we've got technology that enables that."

And to complement the physical technologies being developed and deployed, Vector is heavily invested in software and digital innovation too. Data analytics is increasingly playing a role in how the company makes decisions, for example.

"We do a huge amount of work on data analytics, and we've worked really well and collaboratively with Auckland Council," says Mackenzie. "We've got a huge amount of data and information with them."

That includes layering data relating to housing construction and demographic trends with behavioural economics insights to generate predictions about future energy and transport usage.

Mackenzie says this unlocks "latent capacity" in the market currently; getting more usage hours for less, without necessarily needing to construct new hardware assets.

Similarly, giving customers the ability to optimise their energy usage by controlling devices from their mobile phones is another way Vector are hoping to use technology to access efficiencies.

"That's all centred around de-complicating," says Mackenzie. "Because we don't believe customers want to be computer programmers to run their energy lives."

"That sophistication now of being able to co-ordinate and optimise everything, we can provide through technology that we're utilising."

"That means there will be a lot more customers with those types of solutions either in their homes or on their roofs. Or they could be connected through other community initiatives such as peer-to-peer trading, or a school might have solar and battery in it that's not used in the weekends or holidays — so then how does that get shared with communities?"

"The way we see the overall picture is Auckland becomes more and more self-sufficient, so the remote transmission and generation becomes more of a backup in the long-run, and more of a security layer, as opposed to the primary."

Mackenzie says this vision is one in which Auckland is also a more resilient city, no longer dependent on remote transmission.

Interestingly, Vector's modelling predicts the primary climate change impact in Auckland to be more high wind events, meaning building resilience and continuity of supply is of heightened importance.

The company also wants to raise the awareness on how climate change will differentially impact New Zealand's various areas — with some areas more susceptible to sea level rises, for example, than Auckland.

"From the modelling we've done, from the global research, we worry about the fact that things are changing a lot quicker than people think, and I think we need to raise the debate and awareness around New Zealand on that."

A company target of net zero emissions by 2030 reflects that awareness.

Another example of how the company is looking to lead the community and shift attitudes about how energy can be generated, traded, and used is the project with Auckland Council to light the Harbour Bridge using smart energy technology.

From this coming Auckland Anniversary Weekend, the bridge will be lit by some 90,000 LED lights, utilising solar-generated energy, new battery technology, and peer-to-peer energy trading.

"We saw that as a great fit for us, because it's really iconic," says Mackenzie of the project.

"For us, it's a representation of giving back to Auckland but also displaying how we see the future of energy."

The bridge will have static ambient lighting on most nights, but can be programmed with dramatic animated displays for special events, such as Waitangi or Diwali or the America's Cup. The intention is to have between 12 and 15 of these events over the first year.

Partnerships, collaboration, and cross-industry learnings underpin much of how Mackenzie discusses Vector's strategy in this fast-changing industry.

The company has worked with companies such as LG Chem and Tesla to bring their energy storage products to New Zealand consumers, for example.

Though there is not a great deal that is fundamentally unique about the Auckland energy market and infrastructure, or the city from an environmental perspective, these are features that has made the city amenable to innovation.

"Auckland is of a large enough scale to be globally recognised as an international city," explains Mackenzie. "It's got a political and regulatory environment which is seen as pretty conducive to actually adopting these technologies.

"For some of the technology companies we work with, they see that as a real positive because it becomes a proving ground for what they want to deploy into markets which are going to be a lot slower to adopt."

Adopting new technologies early is seen as vital given Auckland's pace of growth.

"What we've found, is that using technology has enabled us to build a whole new layer of networks internationally — and it's not all from the energy sector — a lot is from outside of the sector, or from adjacencies," says Mackenzie.

"Although we are small on a global scale, the reality is that doing these deployments or adopting these technologies early is advantageous.

"If you're not an early adopter, by the time technologies gain a lot of interest from other parties, you'll end up falling right down the pecking order."