The energy sector is undergoing enormous transformation. From global price fluctuations to consumer price arguments, and debates over fossils versus renewables, few industries are dealing with as many challenges that create so much uncertainty.
In the face of such tension, the Industry Growth Centre tasked with helping to transform the sector – the National Energy Resources Australia, NERA – could hardly have arrived at a more important moment in time.
This is the first of a two-part exploration of NERA’s strategic goals and its plans for achieving them. Part two will be published on Wednesday.
NERA is primarily focused on the oil and gas sectors, with a small amount of work with uranium and coal – the two latter industries not considered “high growth areas.”
“We were established as a growth centre just as the oil and gas sector was facing a massive fall in global pricing,” says NERA chief executive Miranda Taylor.
“The industry was moving out of an investment phase worth billions of dollars in infrastructure. Having to operate at much lower margins meant efficiencies, digital technology and innovation came to the centre of mind,” Ms Taylor said.
“When you’ve got lots of money swilling around you can rush off and do your own thing,” she said. “I don’t think having a growth centre would have worked then. But now that we can’t operate at high margins, we have to work together.”
“We need to be able to innovate fast. Some of the infrastructure to do that needs to be shared. There’s no point one company having a living lab, it is much better if it’s a shared facility.”
Ms Taylor regularly emphasises the opportunity that cooperation and shared efforts present in the current market. But this requires trust, and that’s where NERA aims to place itself in order to bring the industry together.
“That’s why we’ve been able to have so much impact. People have really got that they need help from somebody that’s independent like we are to be able to have safe conversations around data sharing and collaboration. Looking at how we are able to unlock marginal resources in a region like the north west of Western Australia,” says Ms Taylor.
“Designing routes, laying the pipelines, but doing it in a collaborative way. Sharing the infrastructure. And how could we use technology to reduce the cost of those pipelines?”
But this is not an easy leap for many. Ms Taylor acknowledges a lot of big energy companies can be bureaucratic and internal incentives might not be pointed toward innovation or cooperation.
“I still hear cases where something that should have been a no brainer has just got a red pen through it by a senior leader because someone is incentivised to deliver in a way that means they don’t have time to … look at innovation,” says Mr Taylor.
One of the big concerns for some is how intellectual property is managed, or created, through such collaborative processes. But Ms Taylor thinks there is still a lot of confusion as to what IP is truly worth protecting.
“I do wonder in a world of such rapid change what the point of owning your IP is in many cases. I have had some advanced manufacturing companies say to me that they don’t bother because they’re basically focused on the next innovation. But I don’t think my sector is there yet,” says Ms Taylor.
But she also emphasises maintaining a realistic and pragmatic approach while encouraging them toward new ways of approaching such issues around collaboration in R&D and what that asks them to give up.
“I think that’s why we’ve had much more success with projects than some of the other growth centres,” says Ms Taylor. “The universities and others have said it’s impossible to do business with them because they’re not pragmatic enough. You are not going to change overnight the whole way people perceive IP. You have to take people on the journey.”
As for getting down to the real work of bringing innovation to the energy resources sector, Ms Taylor feels too many ideas being shopped around just aren’t big enough or aren’t delivering a solution companies really need.
“A whole bunch of innovators in Australia go off and come up with a solution because they’ve maybe worked in the industry and they think they’ve had this fantastic bright idea,” says Ms Taylor.
“They go off and develop a solution and they walk their great idea around town trying to sell it and then get frustrated when the doors are shut in their faces.”
“Is it really just incremental innovation? Because unless it’s a simple process they can implement themselves, in an industry with high capital costs, the costs of implementation are just not worth it.”
But there are good examples showing what is possible when the right idea is brought to the sector in the right way.