Robert Owens: Insider Insight

Robert Owens, vice president, demand side management, SmartestEnergy, shares some career insights

Robert Owens, vice president, demand side management, SmartestEnergy. Photo: SmartestEnergyWhat has helped you get where you are in your career?

For me it’s always been important to be curious and wanting to understand new things, looking at different ways of working. When I first joined SmartestEnergy 15 years ago it was an energy start-up and we were having to be creative, taking advantages of changes in the energy market and applying them to benefit our customers.

Who have been your role-models/mentors?

I’ve never had a particular role model but I have learned a tremendous amount from the team and my fellow colleagues. When I joined the company I was a graduate and SmartestEnergy was a start-up. The company's turnover in 2014/15 was £1.2 billion. 

When you grow with a business you understand how all the different pieces fit together. This is hugely beneficial when a company is becoming more complex and diverse in its offering.

What qualifications are the most necessary/most beneficial in the clean energy sector

Clearly there are roles in the clean energy sector that require a technical background. But I personally think that anyone with a degree level of education and well-developed critical thinking could go a long way in this sector. What is key in the energy sector is innovation and development. The landscape continuously changes and anyone who is capable of riding the waves of change should be well equipped to thrive.

What have been the stumbling blocks or barriers along the way and how did you adapt to these challenges?

Externally, the energy sector is a very political environment. We’re constantly dealing with changes in legislation and learning how to respond best. Quite often the business has had to invest extensive time and resource in response to policy changes to find that a short while later the measure no longer applied or had been abandoned by the time it was fully implemented.

We have seen the closer integration of EU rules and all the challenges that came with it. Now with Brexit we are faced with a big unknown. And, of course we all know that uncertainty is never good for businesses or investments. Also, I I believe energy is probably not the first thing that will be resolved after leaving the EU.

From a personal point of view, I think the main challenge is to keep people connected and engaged. When you start to bring in different kinds of people into a growing business it’s important to find a way to blend the various characters and skills sets.

What have been the pivotal moments in the field?

Since the transition from a pool arranged market to an electricity trading market there has been a huge surge in demand for a new way of managing renewable energy supply. This was amplified with the opening up of the industrial and commercial market in 2001 (that is, the above 100 kilowatt market) to competition. SmartestEnergy was one of the early adopters of new forms of managing the grid and recognising significant benefits for businesses buying renewable energy, as well as assisting independent renewable energy suppliers in optimising their returns.

What stages of your career have been the most rewarding?

I feel great pride when I see how SmartestEnergy has grown into a well recognised brand with a wide offering from DSR [demand side response] technology to launching the first energy labels to offer companies who buy energy from us a tool to be 100% transparent about where the energy is sourced.

How do you get the most out of your team/colleagues?  

It’s a question of regularly exchanging information. We have various people with different functions. Each function has a different driver. I feel that understanding different perspectives is key to bringing out the best in our co-workers. Someone from finance will see progress in a different light compared to someone looking after the maintenance of another department.

Where do you think there are the most job opportunities in the sector?

The whole landscape in the energy sector is changing. Historically most jobs were found at the ‘Big Six’. But today there are exciting career opportunities at smaller, more innovative energy companies. If you’re young and ambitious and willing to think ‘out of the box’ there is a wide array of companies that are on a journey to develop new and exciting products, shifting the paradigm away from the Big Six.

What other advice do you have for people about to embark on careers in this sector?

Never be afraid to ask questions. Questions of how things are done, why they aren’t done in a different way, and keep an eye on the end-to-end process. I believe that the market is growing towards a more holistic system where people and businesses have a much closer connection to the electricity they use and where and how it has been generated.

With Hinkley Point C going ahead this will be even more apparent. Smart solutions to the peaks and troughs in energy demand will become even more poignant. Hinkley will be a steady but clunky supplier leaving a huge opportunity for other players in the market to be more flexible to meet the energy demand when Hinkley is down for maintenance or on a day that the wind blows too hard.