The Big Six need to get a grip of technological evolutions and must be prepared to collaborate with new partners to do so, or risk getting left behind.

That was the key takeaway from a panel discussion on the utility of the future at last week’s Solar & Storage Live exhibition in Birmingham, where incumbent utilities were also warned that their existing systems are seriously behind other sectors.

The discussion took place against the backdrop of much change in the make-up of the Big Six, with SSE’s retail arm set to be acquired by OVO Group.

That acquisition will pose the biggest change to the Big Six since privatisation in the early 1990s, and one that threatens to disrupt the nature of the Big Six. While other participants such as British Gas (Centrica), ScottishPower (Iberdrola) and npower (Innogy/E.On) have historically owned large, centralised generation assets, OVO has invested considerably in technology platforms and its group company Kaluza has targeted that side of the market specifically.

Speaking on the panel, ScottishPower’s head of innovation, sustainability and quality Barry Carruthers said the Big Six needed to stop talking about the cost of tariffs, labeling them “dead end conversations”, and instead focus on building capabilities in the smart home space.

He stressed that while there was “nobody better” in the power sector than the Big Six at building and running large infrastructure assets, these companies were perhaps lagging behind in areas such as smart homes and consumer-facing products.

That sentiment was echoed by Robyn Lucas, head of data science at Open Energi, who said that when it came to the Big Six, their systems are “lagging behind by eons” compared to the capabilities other sectors possess, and that the rise of flexibility technologies had left them in a “much riskier” position than they were previously.

It was now down to the Big Six to identify where, in respect to emerging technologies like peer-to-peer trading and blockchain, to know where to invest.

Richard Cave-Bigley, director for distributed generation and storage at SSE Enterprise Utilities, said: “It’s important for the Big Six to plot the right path”, adding that the changing ecosystem of power supply would place more importance on long-term thinking, more localised technologies and, crucially, collaboration.

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