Innovating renewable energy by bringing people together
Few things are as important for the future of human society than finding constructive and collaborative solutions to the complex challenges posed by climate change.
Renewable energy and emerging renewable energy technologies have a critical part to play in this process, both in Australia and globally. To make this transition new partnerships, ideas, collaborative projects, technologies and companies are all needed.
Within this context, increasing the supply and competitiveness of renewable energy technologies in Australia is a challenging mandate that has been set out for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).
Wholesale grant-giving programs are the usual response to these types of challenges, yet ARENA recognised that within a highly fragmented and siloed industry the old ways of doing things would not create the type of impact they require.
They set out as an agency to build deep competency for fostering innovation and collaboration across the sector with an aim to catalyse faster, more experimental and impactful renewable energy projects.
A-Lab, ARENA’s innovation lab, is a structed innovation process co-designed by ARENA, ThinkPlace, Marchment Hill Consulting (technical experts) and a range of project collaborators. A-Lab leads diverse groups of people through a best practice innovation methodology involving the acceleration of ideas into experiments and ARENA-funded projects.
It is architected not to identify and deal solely with the problems of today, but to look towards and aspired future, and drive collaborative innovation toward that future.
A-Lab looks for ideas that create new networks and new partners to deliver on solutions. It focuses on challenging all aspects of the energy system e.g. social, technical, regulatory, commercial with the intent to invest in ideas that will lay the foundations for a future of high renewable energy use.
Each A-Lab event seeks to tackle a specific innovation frame or funding priority for ARENA. The six innovation frames were identified early in our design process as those which have the greatest potential to transform the energy sector. They include ambitious goals such as decarbonising the future through adapting current infrastructure, creating an internet of energy and the activation of a customer-driven energy market.
HOW WE DID IT
- A-Lab was established via a 12-week co-design project to design the innovation process.
- The process involves three key stages: ideation, incubation, and acceleration. The stages are activated in specific events that are designed with a specific purpose in mind.
- Ideation: Where there is a desire to catalyse new ideas in a specific innovation frame, we will run a 1-2 day workshop that guides people through the process of rapidly generating innovative ideas that inform projects or future funding rounds for ARENA.
- Acceleration: Where a specific funding round seeks more quality project ideas, we will design a 1-2 day workshop that connects people with several innovative ideas and accelerates them through a highly experimental process that results in a fundable project idea.
It's an opportunity for us to try and get ahead of developments in the market, we don't have time to wait for the regulators to catch up. (A-Lab Participant)
- Incubate: Recently, we’ve invited the market to submit their project ideas for acceleration through the ARENA funding process. These events, called ‘Incubate’ are a 3-day structured program that brings diverse project teams together to intensively develop their project ideas to funding-level maturity. “Participating in Incubate last year, helped my project team to condense what would have normally been six months worth of work into 3-days” (A-Lab Participant)
- A-Lab has been in play for over three years and is now a well-established forum for all electricity sector stakeholders, including energy users, to generate new capacities, approaches and initiatives that drive the renewable energy transition forward in Australia.
ThinkPlace has been A-Lab Design and Innovation Lead since 2016. The results of A-Lab speak for themselves in the multiple high-profile, tangible energy innovations that have been created.
To date, we have delivered almost 20 unique innovation events involving more than 600 people from 250+ organisations. Those events have catalysed more than 300 ideas, resulting in 26 funded projects and 3 spin off projects. ARENA has funded a total of $48.5 million toward A-Lab projects since its inception.
The critical success factor for A-Lab is its ability to bring together a diverse group of people, many of whom are competitors or have opposing views, to find new and creative solutions. Our co-design strategies allowed different users to be heard and contribute to the design of A-Lab, and our networks facilitated the recruitment of the best possible people to create change across the electricity sector.
A-Lab has consistently demonstrated it can generate breakthrough ideas. Some notable highlights from the A-Lab Impact Report include the launch of the Distributed Energy Integration Program and announcing $19 million in funding for Short-term Forecasting and Distributed Energy Resources (both ideas borne from A-Lab events).
A-Lab has also fostered world first experiments such as “deX”, a project led by GreenSync who has joined with two energy companies and a government green bank for trials of a "virtual power station" platform. deX uses spare energy from solar and battery homes to smooth over electricity demand spikes and help prevent blackouts.
A-Lab puts people together in creative ways... [to] generate incredible ideas to solve our biggest challenges. (ARENA)