Innovation Lessons from the LCNI Conference

LCNI

By Jo Spragg, Account Director, Active Profile

One of the biggest events in the energy calendar, the Energy Network Association’s LCNI Conference took place last week in Liverpool. For the 1000+ representatives from the UK’s gas and electricity network operators, SME innovation community, academia and policy who were in attendance, the conference was a valuable opportunity to network, share learning and insight, and discover the latest innovations that are helping to drive the transformational change that the sector must achieve if it’s to address the ‘energy trilemma’ of security, affordability and sustainability.

What does innovation in this sector look like?

Over the last eight years, we’ve developed an understanding of the energy landscape through our work with the Energy Innovation Centre. So for us, LCNI was an unmissable opportunity to immerse ourselves in the world of the energy distribution networks for three whole days (and two nights!)

More importantly, it was an opportunity to draw inspiration from some of the projects being deployed today that have the potential to deliver our energy future tomorrow. To give you a flavour of what this future energy landscape might look like, here are just some of the initiatives we enjoyed learning about over the course of the event:

SGN’s Opening Up the Gas Market project – trialling different gas compositions in Oban which could lead to lower gas prices and more secure energy resources.
Northern Gas Networks and Wales & West Utilities’ H21 City Gate project – a holistic research project to assess the feasibility of converting one of the UK’s largest cities to a hydrogen network.
UK Power Networks’ energywise project – a partnership between ten organisations which will investigate how to plan for future energy needs.
Electricity North West’s CLASS project – a low-cost solution which uses voltage control to manage electricity consumption at peak times, while still providing customers with the same great service.
SP Energy Networks’ ARC – Accelerating Renewable Connections (ARC) will help new green energy projects connect to the local power network earlier by working with local communities and electricity consumers.
Scottish & Southern Energy Power Distribution’s NINES project – using large and small scale energy storage solutions combined with an active network management (ANM) system to create a smart grid in Shetland.
National Grid Gas Distribution’s Future of Gas research series – exploring the critical role that gas has to play in the future energy mix.
Northern Powergrid’s perspective on how the right digital strategy can improve services for vulnerable customers.

Technology + Communications = Customer Engagement

Look at this list and you could be forgiven for thinking that the focus of the event was technical innovation but technology is only one half of the story. All of these projects are funded by the Network Innovation Stimulus awarded by industry regulator, Ofgem, which means they are essentially funded by energy consumers and so demonstrating their value to customers is just as much an integral part of each one as technology.

And the message from the network operators was loud and clear — securing customer buy-in and acceptance to innovative new projects requires an innovative new approach to communications. But how is this best achieved?

Best practice approach

Well, at a strategic level, it begins with engaging the public and getting them to think about energy as part of their lives. How many of us can really say that we care about how the energy that heats and lights our homes reaches us? The energy distribution sector needs to use its collective imagination to challenge the public perception and to re-educate customers to think of energy as a ‘want’ rather than a ‘need’.

At an operational level, taking an innovative approach creates opportunities for network stakeholder and communications teams to work together – and, in some cases, with specialist delivery partners such as PR and digital agencies – to develop compelling customer propositions that clearly communicate the benefits around what are essentially engineering-led projects.

Once these value propositions have been developed and tested, the focus has to shift to how they can be communicated to stakeholders and customers effectively. Best practice in this area clearly shows that there’s a compelling business case for smart and highly targeted communications that take into account factors such as the behaviour, diversity and demographics of the local population.

There are also some universal principles that can be applied to each project engagement campaign in order to ensure maximum impact:

1. Always adopt a customer-centric approach.
2. Be open to utilising new communications channels and techniques.
3. Build a communications strategy that is aligned with the vision and ambition of the project.
4. Learn from others who have gone before by seeking out best practice insight and examples.
5. Be prepared to explore areas of opportunity where collaboration and partnerships can create value.

As the industry moves forward with its plans for smart grid roll out by 2020 and rises to the challenge of decarbonisation by 2050, we look forward to seeing more energy networks roll these principles into their stakeholder communications and engagement activity as the need to win hearts and minds hots up.