Mass electrification is coming – Schneider Electric’s Gareth O’Reilly is ready

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Gareth O’Reilly has worked in energy for most of his life.

Throughout his career, he has continued to find himself in roles working with it – applying, deploying, and managing energy.

Working with applying energy sources in developing countries early in his career led O’Reilly to reconsider what many of us in first-world nations will go our whole lives taking for granted.

He realised it was life-giving.

Energy – clean and equitably distributed energy – has the power to save and change lives, in healthcare, education, in the home, and further.

O’Reilly has been passionate about the area ever since.

But he can also pinpoint another moment in time when he was forced to reconsider the concept.

He watched Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, a film about the environment and climate change, which dove headfirst into exploring the impact of previous industrial revolutions and the damage they had done to the earth.

O’Reilly realised that if we want to protect and maintain the vital resource that is energy, while still protecting and maintaining our planet, significant changes need to be made.

“We are the generation that in effect discovered this situation,” O’Reilly tells Forbes Australia.

And he hopes that his generation will be “a generation that addresses it for the future.”

Now O’Reilly finds himself in a position to effect meaningful change.

As president of Schneider Electric Australia and New Zealand – where he has worked for the past 13 years – O’Reilly oversees about 2,200 people who are passionate about innovative energy management solutions and services.

And he certainly hasn’t left behind the passion he fostered early on around clean, equitable energy – and he sees addressing issues surrounding it as a key to tackling the climate crisis facing the world right now.

“I feel concerned if we don’t move at speed, but I feel optimistic that we have a way forward,” O’Reilly said, “This is one of the most existential crises that we’ve all faced together.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report in 2018 that stated limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100 was a target we must meet to prevent further climate catastrophe from occurring.

Organisations, governments, businesses and individuals alike may have all made separate goals or promises to work towards to prevent the worsening of climate change, but what they all have in common is emissions reduction.

A whopping 80% of emissions created are driven by energy production and consumption, and O’Reilly believes that turning our attention to reinventing the energy industry is a necessity.

Of course, the other 20% of emissions – made up of factors such as agriculture – are not insignificant, but as O’Reilly puts it, “80% is a pretty big number”.

As the Australian government works towards achieving its goal of Net Zero by 2050, re-examining the country’s traditional methods of creating and consuming energy will play an important role in anti-climate change efforts.

O’Reilly believes that to create an energy consumption system that is sustainable, transparent, and prioritises consumer needs, there needs to be a digital infrastructure set up.

Schneider Electric integrates cloud-controlled software with leading technologies to track the lifecycle of energy from the creation point to the consumption point.

In doing this, clients of Schneider Electric are allowed to feel in control and aware of their energy usage and management – and above all else, sustainability and efficiency are the top priorities.

Schneider was recognised for their innovation around the energy cycle when they were awarded the world’s most sustainable company in 2021 by the Corporate Knights Global 100 Index.

And whilst sustainability-focused efforts around energy can often leave consumers feeling wary that their needs aren’t being prioritised, O’Reilly’s philosophy centres around understanding the unique needs of individual customers.

Decarbonisation roadmaps will look entirely different depending on whether you are a homeowner, a business owner, or even a government. Using technologies like Schneider Electric’s, consumers are empowered to understand what a decarbonisation roadmap might look like for them.

Digital platforms are uniquely situated to help energy users realise their sustainability strategies, and plan for the future.

But it’s not only convenient. O’Reilly argues it is an absolute necessity.

As we look to lower our emissions globally, we will increasingly rely on electricity – one of the significantly ‘cleaner’ energy sources – to power our homes, businesses, and countries.

However, it has taken us around 70 years to electrify our mature economies – and time is a luxury we do not have with the climate crisis.

O’Reilly stresses that as we push globally towards mass electrification, deploying new, digital infrastructure will become necessary to support the speed at which we will see industries and homes become electrified.

Digitally enabled electricity, bidirectional electricity, and the widespread usage of electric transportation such as EVs are undoubtedly the future of energy.

The technologies and capabilities at Schneider Electric aim to ensure that clients are ready to embrace this transition into the era of what O’Reilly calls “Electricity 4.0”.

And true emissions-reducing change starts with consumers – who often feel disempowered from making more environmentally conscious choices due to a lack of support.

Setting up a digital infrastructure will help to see consumer patterns change for the better as they enter ‘Electricity 4.0’. This could be through enabling them to charge EVs when it is cheapest to do so, encouraging increasing adoption of lower-emissions transport.

This could be particularly important in a country like Australia – O’Reilly fervently believes that in many instances, industry has the power to effect more change than government.

Our land down under has been somewhat slow on the uptake in adopting electric transportation.

Australia is one of few countries within the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) that does not have fuel efficiency standards for its vehicles.

A lack of fuel efficiency standards coupled with slower adoption of EVs leaves Australia behind on the world stage when it comes to reducing emissions from transportation – a critical example of where digital infrastructure can help going forward.

Where Australia leads, however, is residential electricity generation.

Our country is one of the most advanced in the world in this area, with over 30% of Australian households having solar panels installed by 2022.

The Australian government offers renewable energy rebates and incentives to encourage homeowners to install solar panels, and consumers understand that a switch to renewables will save them money in the long term.

Our nation’s adoption of residential electricity generation should be taken as a clear example of the success of incentivising sustainability measures and educating consumers on the long-term economic benefits.

The use of residential electricity generation also helps move energy production towards a bidirectional grid – where consumers become ‘prosumers’ (both producers and consumers of energy).

As prosumers become increasingly common and vital to the energy grid, digital infrastructure that tracks the creation and consumption of energy will ease the transition away from the traditional methods of non-renewable energy consumption, and into the era of Electricity 4.0.

This era will see increasing equity of distribution for energy (still an issue close to O’Reilly’s heart from his days working in developing countries), and a lowering of emissions which will hopefully steer us away from increasing climate catastrophe.

“What we must do is do this we speed, but also care,” O’Reilly told Forbes Australia.

“We must do this in a way that requires the right technical and economic rigor, but at the same time, with an ambitious agenda towards transition.”