Meet the CEO leading clean energy innovation

October 2020

Nuno Carneiro is the recently appointed CEO of Starling Energy Group and the Plico Energy Project, an award-winning, community-driven clean energy movement. Here, he shares his vision for Plico and renewable energy in Western Australia.

Heard of Plico Energy? The project – winner of the Energy Innovation of the Year award at the Au2019 WA Energy Awards – looks set to flip the way Australians traditionally consume energy on its head.

Delivered by Starling Energy Group and funded by SUSI Partners, the project allows members (currently from communities across WA, but ultimately across Australia) to generate and consume their own clean power, accounting for up to 90 per cent of their total needs.

Not only does this lower the cost of energy consumption, but it also significantly reduces each household’s carbon emissions.

Homeowners (members) are provided with rooftop solar panels plus a battery storage unit allowing them to not only generate their own power but also store it.

Each individual system is then aggregated back into a virtual power plant (VPP) which feeds back into the local energy grid. Better still, the cost of membership includes complete maintenance and management services, currently provided by Starling Energy Group.

The project’s structure is what makes it particularly unique. It allows for a share of the proceeds to be distributed back to communities to fund local initiatives and ultimately, the goal is to transfer ownership of the platform back to the community. Members don’t own their system outright. Instead, they become collective owners of the assets, including the VPP, which supports the future sustainability of our energy grid.

In August 2020, Nuno Carneiro was appointed CEO of the Starling Energy Group and Plico Energy Project. Previously an Associate Partner at global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, he brings to the role more than 20 years’ experience in consulting, business development and management, and technical leadership.

Nuno is an avid surfer and traveller who’s lived on five continents over the past 40 years. Currently living with his wife and two young children in Yallingup in WA’s South West where he’s actively involved with the community, he’s eager to bring his vast global experience and passion for climate change to the Plico Energy Project.

What interested you in the CEO role at Starling Energy Group and Plico Energy?

As a father of two young children (ages 5 and 10) I had become increasingly interested in the topic of climate change and was looking for a company that offered real solutions. Plico Energy fits what I was looking for perfectly – it offers households the opportunity to become mostly carbon neutral in their energy needs, while at the same time building a platform that can assist the broader grid in transitioning to cleaner, more reliable sources (something that existing residential solar models do not).

Beyond the motivating issue of climate change, Starling and Plico also give me a platform to continue to grow and develop as a professional. I knew I would miss the intellectual challenges that my previous career at McKinsey offered me on a daily basis, so I was keen to join a company that would help me remain intellectually active, while playing a role in solving the renewable energy issues of a grid transition.

What’s your vision for the Plico Energy Project?

My vision is for Plico to become the largest community owned energy company in the world and for WA, and particularly the South West, to become the HQ for Starling Energy – an innovative organisation that we are growing to become the largest Distributed Energy Resources (DER) asset management company globally. Our model, like our distributed assets, is modular in nature and has the potential to grow to become a global reference in the DER world.

What excites you about this vision and direction?

Our mission is also one of economic experimentation. Our community owned assets create an economic model for individuals to indirectly own a piece of the company that provides their energy, and in doing so, we democratise the ownership of public utilities. Although owned by individuals, these assets are professionally managed by Starling Energy. So we’re transitioning the grid from traditional fuel sources to renewable energy while providing individual households and large-scale utilities with professionally managed renewable energy assets such as solar panels and batteries. What’s not to like?

What’s your current focus at Plico?

Our current focus is 100 per cent on building our member installed base. We currently have more than 200 members, and aim to have 1,000 by December and 5,000 by July 2021.

How do you plan to increase your membership?

Currently we’re in talks to develop a number of B2B relationships that will allow us to triple or quadruple our number of installations over the next three to four months. And then in parallel, we’ve launched Plico Points, a loyalty program for members so that every time they refer friends or family to join Plico, they get a week free without a cap on how many weeks they can earn – we call it ‘sharing the Plico love’.

Do you believe it’s the cost savings that motivate your members to join?

It is certainly one of the drivers, but what we’re also starting to realise is that people are signing up because they want to switch to green energy. And that’s the biggest promise we can make to our members – you may be cost even, or possibly save a little bit on your energy bill, but we can guarantee that you’ll replace your current 10 to 15 per cent green energy in your house with 80 to 90 per cent green energy. Once our members realise this, they really believe it is worth it.

So why wouldn’t someone just get roof solar panels?

Currently, Western Australia has over 20 per cent uptake in solar panels – the amount of solar energy coming into the grid during the day is quite substantial, but this unmanaged solar (or ‘dumb solar’) is creating a big problem for the network. The simplest way I can explain it is if a cloud comes over a whole neighbourhood, for example, the amount of solar energy going into the grid drops, but once the cloud passes, it comes back up again. That constant up and down has a really damaging impact on the overall grid and causes local voltage instability, which Western Power has to spend millions and millions of dollars fixing.

This problem is easily solved by having a battery, which absorbs and stores the energy and helps to stabilise the local voltage fluctuations. But batteries today are quite expensive as a standalone purchase for a household. We’ve found a way to enable households to have the technology and start saving from day one without having to spend the capital upfront. Having solar power should be good, but by not having a battery you are passing a problem on to the grid that all of us have to pay for. Our system is positive towards the environment, positive towards the grid and positive towards the total cost of our energy system.

What are the biggest challenges your industry is currently facing?

The WA energy grid is at a fork in the road. We have a choice to either continue to solve problems the traditional way by continuing the residential ‘dumb solar’ expansion and spending large amounts of capital on big infrastructure – power plants, transformers, transmission lines and so on – or make a safe bet on new controllable DER technologies such as small-scale solar with behind-the-meter batteries and aggregation services. Changing the way in which we operate is never easy, but I am confident that economics will prevail once the market regulatory environment – the WA Government’s DER Roadmap – is in place.

How do you hope to increase the uptake of DER technologies and what’s in it for the consumer?

From a Plico point of view, it really is a classic case of the ‘chicken and the egg’. The larger our membership base is, the more valuable we are to the grid in terms of services we can provide. Likewise, the more revenue we generate from the services we provide, the more our members benefit through the community-owned vehicle, which in turn should make it more attractive for more members to join. It really is a win-win for DER, in the role they can play supporting the grid, and for consumers.

How does your new role at Plico compare to your previous professional experiences?

I’m finding it super rewarding. At the end of the day, it’s very similar to what I’ve done all my career, which is getting big organisations to go through change – through complex change. I’m really trying to influence Western Power, Synergy and all the big players to see that there are new, more efficient ways of running a network – but these new ways have to work for them as well, and I would be negligent if I did not aspire to build a future grid that is inclusive and based on our current grid players’ needs. So it’s not too different from what I did before. You ’climb a mountain one step at a time’, right? We just fundamentally have one conversation at a time and try to get everyone climbing towards the summit, which in this case, for me, is how we transition our grid towards 100 per cent renewables.

What’s your management philosophy and how are you applying that at Plico?

I’m a big fan of Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) and his management philosophy of making sure that a business has a purpose and strives every day to live up to it. At Plico Energy, our purpose is to help transition communities into self-generated renewable energy, day and night, and we do it one household rooftop at a time. The entire Plico team is motivated by our mission, and my role as CEO is to empower them to excel in their individual fields in the delivery of our mission.