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Striving to improve the energy market

Newbury-based PassivSystems' CEO Colin Calder has the energy to try to solve a major global problem

Sarah Bosley


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Colin Calder

Colin Calder, CEO of PassivSystems

I CATCH up with Colin Calder between his calls to government officials and energy bigwigs.

He is a busy man; a busy man with a mission. A mission to change the energy market for the better.

And he is leading that charge from his Newbury company, PassivSystems.

“I am pretty passionate about trying to change the energy market for the better,” he explains.

“Two years ago I started working with the Government, providing input to the Cabinet Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“I am currently leading an industry consortium that is pushing Government to create an energy framework so we have a better understanding for the future.

“It means we are fundamentally going to have to change what the gas and electricity grid does and that has a huge impact on what we invest in as a country.

“We need a long-term investment strategy.”

Colin’s interest in climate change began back in 2007, when he met a professor from the University of Milan.

“At that time Italy was the only county to roll out smart meters to all homes,” says Colin, who was born and grew up in Newbury.

“I ended up meeting the head of faculty at the University of Milan and got talking to him about how that had been managed and what the benefits were.

“I was surprised to hear that the Government were nervous to move to using time-sensitive tariffs for fear of civil unrest.

“It got me thinking that this isn’t just an Italian problem, but a global problem.

“There were huge political issues tied up with it, but at that point I decided to set up PassivSystems and do more work on it.”

In the early days, PassivSystems focused entirely on the home consumer market – looking at how to engage consumers with the energy industry and how to get consumers value for money while de-carbonising everything.

“Around 80 per cent of energy into the home goes on heating and hot water, so we set about developing ‘learning algorithms’ – an algorithm that learns the thermal dynamic model of your home,” Colin says.

“It learns about the rate at which your home loses or gains heat.”

PassivSystems was the first company in the world to launch a smart thermostat when it showcased it at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2010.

It was named in the top six hottest products of the entire show, which was a phenomenal achievement for a relatively small start-up from West Berkshire.

Since then the company has put more and more capability in to its thermostat, which now includes 24-hour weather forecasts too.

The thermostat can predict how much energy your home will be using, and when, to offer you the perfect environment.

That data can then be used to see how much it could be altered, in terms of timing and temperature and therefore demand on the nation’s supply, while still maintaining your ‘comfort level’.

Consumer studies have so far shown that PassivSystem’s products, which can be controlled from a mobile phone, are all very well received.

“Over time we will be moving more and more towards using electricity rather than gas and electricity networks will become volatile,” explains Colin.

“The rate at which renewable generation changes will affect the stability of the electricity network and if the National Grid doesn’t keep the network stable on a second-by-second basis then it could trip out a lot of systems.

“Consumers can help keep the grid stable by moderating demand.

“We must reverse the model from turning power stations on and off to moderating demand to fit when the grid has the power.”

Colin is now involved in a number of trials with government departments and the energy industry to try to establish a sustainable future.

“It is about buying it [energy] when it is cheap,” he says. “And giving people comfort, ease of use and better value for money.”

Adding another string to its bow, the company has developed an asset management capability and currently maintains around 40,000 rooftop solar PV systems across the country.

More than 800,000 homes in the UK have solar PV panels and a large part of that market is social housing, where a ‘rent a roof’ scheme is employed.

“We can help minimise operational costs and maximise output yield,” adds Colin. “We have made huge investments in advanced software techniques.”

The company is now also branching out into some of the more hard-to-reach places of the country, including an EU-funded project to help the Isles of Scilly become more carbon efficient, and trials are currently ongoing there.

“The consumers are becoming energy traders,” says Colin.

“We are currently doing some really interesting work around getting consumers best value for money and that involves looking at when to buy and store energy.

“We are looking at how to reshape the energy market and working with all of the big energy companies and the Government to do that.”

PassivSystems is a profitable company that currently employs 50 people at its offices in Newbury. It is now looking to expand into Denmark and the Middle East.

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