kWatch – the little black box with an edge

Flow Power

Giving commercial consumers access to wholesale energy prices was at the heart of why Matthew van der Linden started Flow Power, a company that does exactly that – take out the middle man in the energy stakes.

Managing director van der Linden felt that for too long many of the electricity retailers had things their own way and that maybe it was time for a new player in the market. They all offered similar pricing and services, and therefore there was no real competition. Van der Linden saw an opportunity for a fourth player.

Van der Linden knew that setting up an electricity retailer was no small thing. There were many facets that needed to be brought on-board. Questions included:

  • How can we pass on savings to consumers?
  • What length do our contracts need to be to secure energy from suppliers?
  • How do we work with customers to give them access to the wholesale market?
  • How do we help consumers monitor their power usage in real time and manage their load more efficiently?

It was the last question that gave Flow Power a point of difference – giving consumers an easy-to-use device to monitor their power consumption in real time and manage their use efficiently. The answer was the kWatch Intelligent Controller, a proprietary black box that has a huge range of features under its hood. Designed in-house by Flow Power, the controller is a nifty little device that is designed to record data and transmit it live back to monitoring systems that can be accessed online.

Designing the device was no easy task. It took a while for the boffins at Flow Power to come up with a unit that would meet a range of end-users’ needs.

“It is designed around a Windows IoT OS, which is a little unique in the market,” said van der Linden. “It’s got advanced capabilities so that it can make complex decisions. It was developed to interact with advanced control systems. It’s designed to be onsite and be a reliable communication tool to the cloud. However, it can also make decisions without being connected to the cloud. It’s also designed to deal with networks that might be unreliable or have connectivity issues. This includes tracking power loads and helping with troubleshooting.”

Problems with power supplies are nothing new in the energy sector. It is rife with examples of when loads have been mismanaged, blackouts have occurred, or problems have arisen between retailers and their customers because monitoring the system has been inadequate. This little gadget was designed more out of necessity.

“We needed a device that solved certain problems including the ability to control load in response to price fluctuations,” said van der Linden. “We tried to go off the shelf but couldn’t find anything that specifically met that need. For about five years we tried to roll something out that did the job and finally we came up with the controller, which we’ll be rolling out this year.”

Inventors of similar devices might think it would have been an easy build – after all, most energy companies have similar products that monitor energy use and build up. But Flow Power wanted to take it one step further. The end result being for the consumer to control loads over multiple sites – important if one site is under pressure when shedding load.

“Imagine we have a large customer that has 30 sites across Victoria and they’re on wholesale,” said van der Linden. “When you are on wholesale you need to be able to control those 30 sites in a co-ordinated fashion in order to achieve a certain demand reduction across many different sites. You might have a load of 20 megawatts in Victoria and you might buy a wholesale hedge of 10 megawatts. What that means is that during a high price event you need to bridge all your sites across the state to 10 megawatts. The kWatch Intelligent Controller is designed to achieve that goal.”

For Flow Power customers without the controller, information is sent via SMS, which has problems.

“[SMSing] is arbitrary and it’s hard to get specific information,” said van der Linden. “When we developed our wholesale pricing system we knew we needed the black box solution to make it scalable. The concept of doing this manually works but it’s a hassle. Over time people would get tired of doing it this way. Our controller solution makes it simple for everyone.”

Although the kWatch Intelligent Controller was not designed to be sold as a standalone device (it is paired with Flow Power’s Freedom Power Plan sells), it does give customers a solid solution to help manage their energy needs.

For a company trying to make it with the big players, Flow Power needs every little advantage it can get.