Bart: Good morning, everyone! I’m Bart and I’d like to welcome you to another “Technology in Renewables” episode. Today I have the pleasure of welcoming with us Thorsten Heller, the CEO of Greenbird. Thorsten, it’s really great to have you here.
Thorsten: Good morning, nice to meet you. Great to see you again. It’s been a while since we saw each other, hasn’t it?
Bart: Yeah, exactly. Thorsten, you and I met about 5 years ago, or at least I think so, time flies really fast. It’s been amazing to see you guys becoming busier and busier. And I think there is a good reason for that which is directly connected with energy transition. You are mostly working with utilities and energy companies to help them manage and integrate their data from various systems, and basically to help them use them for real-time decisions. So before we get into more details… You set up your company in 2010 and I wonder how has your idea changed since the time you actually set it up to where you guys are today? Cause it’s been a decade, hasn’t it?
Thorsten: Oh yeah. It’s a long journey. The interesting thing is, as you said Bart, we started Greenbird in 2010 but the business idea to build Greenbird and our platform was already created in 2005/2006. So it’s even longer if you think about it.
Bart: Oh wow.
Thorsten: And the reason for that, you may already know this, is that the Scandinavian countries, like Norway and Sweden, we’ve been quite early in deploying smart meters, using smart sensors and IoT devices to manage the grid in a smart way. And me and my co-founders, we’ve all been working as system integrators for many different utilities in Sweden and Norway, and every time when we came back for the weekend and we met, we had maybe a glass of wine or beer. And I would ask my friends: what have you done this week? They would tell me: oh, I had to integrate another meter vendor, I had to integrate another billing system, I had to integrate another MDM system. They’d ask: what have you done? And I had to say: oh, I had to integrate another billing system, another MDM system, etc. And the only difference was that one of the guys was running on Oracle, the next guy, like in the old times, was still on the BA environment, the next guy was developing on Microsoft BStock, and I was running an open-source project on Mulesoft. My co-founders then thought: that is nonsense. So let’s try to build a platform that is exactly what became Utilihive, and an integration platform where we can solve the commodity challenges that each utility has with integrating source, integrating different meta types, integration with MDM, billing, asset management, etc. So let’s build a platform that provides this commodity kind of integration challenges out of the box. And that was the business idea and that’s how we started out in 2010.
Bart: So tell me cause I’m really curious, from your perspective, the utilities and the energy transition back then, even in 2012, 2013, and 10 years later which is where we are right now, do you see any differences in terms of the needs and trends? Obviously, as you mentioned, there are certain geographical areas that work better when it comes to innovation and smart meeting implementation and government programs like demand response, frequency response, and other programs that help manage the demand and supply of energy. But do you see any differences between those couple of years ago and right now?
Thorsten: Yeah, I see several huge differences. So before we talk about technology or maybe the energy transition, one of the big changes I see, and I’m quite sure you see it too, are the skillset and the people we are talking to in the utilities have changed completely.
10 years, 12 years ago, usually you would meet with the manager of the grid division and he was a former, let’s say, electro-engineer. Now when we meet people in the management, you see more people that are IT people, you see more people with a digital background. That is one of the things which is quite interesting because 10 or 12 years ago, the people we talked to were mostly coming from the field of electricity, like grid engineers that made their career in the organization, but they had a heavy focus on, let’s say the physical network.
Today, when you look at the management of most of the utilities we speak to, there is always a Chief Data Officer and there is a Chief Digital Officer. You have more e-type people because nowadays everybody understands that data is the most important thing for utilities. By the way, fun story, do you know what CEO meant 100 years ago? That was the Chief Electricity Officer, so 100 or 200 years ago you would have a CEO, Chief Electricity Officer, and his main focus was to leverage electricity to increase productivity in the organization. That is exactly the CDO today, the Chief Data Officer. It’s exactly the same role. The most important person in utility today is the CDO (Chief Data Officer) who is leveraging data to build all of these new models. So one of the big changes is indeed the skills, the people, or who is managing the company.
Bart: We’ve already established that the data is critical and it’s crucial to obtain the data. Can you explain why it is so hard to actually get out of those data in the current environment? The utilities have been around for so many years and now we are talking about having real-time data and things like that. But what’s the issue? What’s the challenge when it comes to this area of quality, real-time data gathering that will be used in digital transformation?
Thorsten: One of the reasons I believe is exactly what we already discussed, that the people that have been responsible for implementing the solutions, for architecting the solutions, they were mainly from grid engineers. So there was a heavy focus on business, and that means from an architecture point of view that many of the utilities just implemented some kind of solutions, but integration, how to make automated processes, how to enable a real-time data flow. 10 years, 20 years, 30 years ago – that was not necessary at all.
So what we are still finding today is quite often the Silo application portfolio. That is one of the things why it’s so hard to get it to work. The other thing is, of course, when you look at the utilities from a software or data point of view, there hasn’t been that much innovation from an application point of view, so you are still finding the same big players and they are serving a huge amount of utilities. But these kinds of monolithic applications were built for the business needs a utility had 15 or 20 years ago, and now we are suddenly within 1, 2, 3 years, we are moving into real-time data business. Suddenly we get more and more electrical cars. We get distributed energy resources, and the clip companies have to balance the network in real-time, but they are running our application stack that was originally designed maybe 20 years ago.
And I think that is one of the big challenges that most of the applications, when I think about ARP Systems, asset management systems, GIS systems – they were built with requirements that were 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago. So utilities have to really invest now in the application to build an application landscape for real-time data.
So that is one of the challenges. Of course, we are seeing that many utilities are running an application stack that was designed many years ago, or that was designed for a [specific] requirement. Basically, it’s many years old. And I guess you see exactly the same too.
Bart: We do, yes. Let’s explore this concept in terms of what you guys are doing in the Greenbird cause that’s really interesting. Your modus operandi is basically to exactly help and solve this problem so that the end utilities can actually have those real-time data and they can utilize them to manage their activities, to optimize their energy balancing within their grids in correlation with renewable energy sources as well, to balance the capacity of the network.
So what’s the Greenbird’s role? Do you provide them with the tools and are you trying to do the integrations? You’re doing the integrations. Can you explain what your typical setup for such a utility is? Do you connect with those smart meters and then different data services and do you provide the platform that is onsite or is it a cloud service? I mean, you’ve been building this for so many years, so I consider you one of the top experts in this area. Can you just share a bit of insight so that we can learn a little bit more? How do you guys operate and how do you bring this value to utilities?
Thorsten: When you think about our platform utility, you can look at it in various ways. First of all, like what the old guys would call middleware or what some people would call an ESP, it can be an enterprise service bot. You could call it an integration platform. But we have built this platform with a purpose: it should be designed for utilities. And it means that we have built this platform with some technical capabilities, which are extremely important for utilities operating the future grid.
I’ll give you some examples. The future utility will have a lot of data, a based amount of data, and nobody really knows today how much data they will have in the future. So one of the capabilities, your platform, your integration, and data management platform must provide this elastic scalability because you don’t know, I don’t know how resolutions in the smart meters are changing. Nobody knows how many smart sensors we will have in the network. How many intelligent devices, and how much behind-the-meter technology will get into the network. So as I said, elastic scalability is extremely important.
Another element that is extremely important, also in the future, is the utility bill operating critical infrastructure. So you always have this IT/OT integration challenge because some of your applications will have to be operated in a secured zone like your SCADA, or your ADMS. On the other side, you want to have more and more data running in a cloud to leverage all the advantages from a secure cloud infrastructure. So you need a platform that can handle a secure IT/OT integration too. And the last element I could describe even more to you… A utility or many utilities are heavily regulated, so you need a platform where you are flexible in case regulations change. I’ll give you an example. Let us assume you are using metering data. You aggregate metering data with data from your GIS to create real-time insight into your low voltage, mid voltage network, and for any given reason, the regulators in your home country or in your region require that smart metadata is sensitive and has to store in a private or in an on-prem environment.
Then as a utility, you need the flexibility to just switch the deployments – those kinds of technical capabilities are what we have built into the utility life platform. What we’ve done, in addition to that, we have then used our own platform to provide a set of accelerators, preconfigured integration applications, and data services that give you as a utility a head start when you wanna move into this new data-driven world.
Bart: So can you give an example of one accelerator that a certain utility can use? Because I assume this is a second level of a kind of value you’re bringing to the table. Right? One is the platform. And once you’ve got this platform, you’re hooking up all of the data sources into one big platform. And then you are saying: Hey, by the way, we’ve actually got those preconfigured apps that you can use.
Thorsten: I’ll give you two examples. A simple example is, we provide a huge library of preconfigured adapters to the most commonly used utility applications on the market. So if you are a utility and you are operating different kinds of smart meters, maybe you even have a mix of different meter rentals for commercial, industrial, and residential, we are providing a huge library of preconfigured adapters to different headend systems, to different metadata management systems, different billing systems. So we provide preconfigured integration to the most commonly used utility applications on the market. That means if you want to access the data, you are much faster because you already have the templates in place. But what we also provide is higher value services. We also provide a simple application that we call “Mon ami”. “Mon ami” is a French word that means “it’s my friend”, but what it really means is we are using AMI data to monitor the low voltage mid voltage network. How do we do that? We are using data from smart meters. And we set the data from the smart meters in context with data from your meter, data management, from your asset management, from your GIS, and now I can create real-time insight and transparency of what is happening in your network. That is extremely important. If you want to identify bottlenecks, if you want to identify how EVs are influencing or impacting the infrastructure and those kinds of accelerators, these “Mon ami”, is just one example. We have another accelerator that helps you to monitor your entire Smart Meter operations. We have another accelerator that helps you to manage market communication, switching processes, and things like that. But those kinds of accelerators are meant to give you a head start. So you as a partner or as a utility would use these accelerators. You get a lot of out-of-the-box value from it. But you would configure, adapt them, customize, and add functionality specific to the utility.
Bart: Mhm. It makes sense. Thank you for clarifying. Greenbird, as a middleware platform, I think can bring a lot of value for the utilities, And, from what you’ve described, I assume you are in a position where it’s tempting to figure out a bit of a spinoff for different business models. Like for example, you know, jump into a demand response or manage the loads or like peak shaving, load balancing. Have you guys thought about this as well and as the next part of your platform? It sounds like you’ve got everything very well established to build the groundwork for becoming kind of a VPP for a certain kind of level of operations.
Thorsten: Yeah. Interesting question. And the answer is yes, we have thought about it, but we are not doing it. And I’ll tell you the reason. From a strategic point of view, our vision is to be the number one energy-ready IPaaS indication platform as a service in the market. What we have done is we have enriched IPaaS capabilities, with a lakehouse architecture that is optimized for utilities. That means whenever I’m handling a data integration or system integration in my platform, you can configure that the data is stored in my data lake. Then I run pre-processing and pre-process the data in utility and energy-optimized data models lakehouse architecture style, but what we are not doing strategically is developing those kinds of analytic services that sit on top of our platform. Why? Because we wanna be the data foundation. We wanna be the platform company that simplifies for you, for the utilities, for our partners how to access data, how to set data into context, how to harmonize data, and how to access data in a unified way across these different lakehouse data models. But we don’t wanna be the analytics company. What we are doing is, we are heavily into the market. We are watching and we do a lot of research. We work together with a lot of partners for all these new data-driven use cases you talked about, such as flexibility, EDR management, smart EV charging, behind-the-meter aggregation, or disaggregation of consumption data. What we are doing, we are providing the platform, the architecture, to enable these use cases with an optimized data integration hub kind of a platform. But we are not providing the analytics applications on top. And that was a strategic decision we’ve made in the company because we wanna be the number one integration platform and we want to enable those kinds of models.
Bart: Thank you for the clarification. It makes sense. So to wrap everything up, because we are approaching the end of our discussion, what is next for Greenbird within the upcoming year or two? I saw that you guys released a new version of the platform, I think yesterday, I saw it in the announcements. So what are your big plans in the upcoming time?
Thorsten: We have two. From a product point of view, we have two major directions. On the one side, and that is what you talked about, what we announced yesterday. We are continuously adding new kinds of those accelerators, and preconfigured indication applications where the focus is on providing frameworks component for challenges that all of the utilities have to solve. So in the roadmap, we will almost every quarter release a new kind of these accelerators. And by the way, the accelerator you spoke about, that was exactly this market communication module when you want to integrate a regional data app or you have a market communication where you have to exchange switching processes and orchestrate those things. That is one of the accelerators we have now built into the utility platform to configure that. So on the one side, it’s continuously providing additional accelerators. From a technical point of view, we have a heavy focus on real-time. Most of our clients are operating for 15 minutes, but I guess one day we are gonna be at 5 minutes in the ball reads. But what I already see today is, more and more of the utilities also establish a real-time channel meaning sensor data that almost comes in real-time to balance. So we are adding more and more capabilities for real-time analytics in the platform. We are adding more and more capabilities to the platform that can identify challenges, IT challenges, challenges in the platform using those kinds of mechanisms. From a company point of view, we have a heavy focus, of course, on building our partner network. We are a platform technology company, so the implementation is mainly done by our partners or by the utilities themselves. So we are a platform provider. The next big thing that we are working on and focusing on is recruiting more system integration partners that want to implement solutions on top of the Utilihive platform.
So in each of the different regions worldwide, we are working with utility-focused system integrators. Heavy focus on energy, heavy focus on utility, but also integration and data mindset that would use our platform to implement solutions. So the partner network is one of our most important goals.
Bart: So I do have a follow-up question on that. Out of those utility applications, do you see any specific trends or do you see any specific most common integration that utilities are performing nowadays?
Thorsten: Yeah. One of the trends we are seeing is OT/IT. It means that, in the case where we are discussing with utilities, is that they want to bridge the gap between the OT network, SCADA/ADMS with the IT network, meaning they want to enrich the SCADA experience, the ADMS experience with data from IT, from the meters, from the sensors, and vice versa. That is one of the big trends we see.
But I understand it because otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to manage the network. You would get too many bottlenecks and if you want to create a move to a flexible market, you have to do OT/IT. That is one of the big trends. The other big trend we are seeing is that many of our utility clients have started to think about smart meters and smart meter data in a kind of different way. So they look at the smart meter data to be a commercial data stream because that is what you use for billing, for settlements, and things like that. But many of our utilities have started to think about a second kind of data stream that is not used for commercial things, but that is used in flexibility, DR integration, grid management, meaning sensors, meaning real-time data. It’s not used for billing, it’s not used for commercial. So you don’t have the same requirements from a commercial point of view, but for this kind of data, they must implement the data stream and handle it.
So those kinds of integrations where we combine the commercial data stream with this new, what I call sometimes the grid management data stream or the real-time data stream, that is one of the biggest trends I see at the moment that utilities start thinking about: two streams to manage commercial and grid management. And we wanna be the platform that enables you as a utility or as a partner to manage both data streams in a smart way, and make the data available so we are much faster jointly to drive the energy transition.
Bart: Sure. Thank you very much. Thorsten, thank you for your time. It was a huge pleasure to have you here and I’m looking forward to seeing you in person at the upcoming conference in Paris.
Thorsten: I’m in Paris, maybe at E-world. We’ll see.
Bart: We’re gonna be there for sure. So thank you very much. And for anybody that wants to get to Greenbird, you can obviously Google it, or go directly to www.greenbird.com and you can find more information over there. Thanks again. Have a good rest of the day. See you.