New power for the energy market

During her doctoral studies, Liliane Ableitner developed a trading and billing tool for energy communities. Three years on, she is CEO of a flourishing start-up with 20 employees.
Liliane Ableitner: «It’s a fairly traditional industry, and there are times when I have to be assertive.» (Photograph: Daniel Winkler)

Liliane Ableitner is the epitome of a successful businesswoman. In a very short space of time, she has accomplished an effortless transition from doctoral student at ETH Zurich to CEO of a start-up with an international customer base. She holds TED talks and has been interviewed a number of times by Handelszeitung newspaper. She also featured on the 2020 Forbes list of the most influential 30 people under the age of 30 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. More importantly, she deals on a daily basis with the CEOs of major energy companies, discusses future developments in the power market and explains how her company, Exnaton, and its software can help shape these trends. Despite her relatively young years, 32-year-old Ableitner oozes confidence and experience – something she worked hard to acquire. “It’s a fairly traditional industry, and there are times when I have to be assertive,” she laughs. Like Ableitner herself, the company’s software has injected new power into the energy market.

A Sceptical Market

Ableitner first developed an interest in energy as a business informatics student at the University of Bamberg in Bavaria. “What bothered me most was how to make private households a part of the energy transition,” she says. During her doctorate at ETH, she first worked on ways of visualising household energy data. “Direct feedback shows people exactly how much power and hot water they use,” she explains. “And it tells them that if they make savings here, they’ll be doing their bit for the environment.” She then decided to incorporate data on the power generated by households with solar panels. Her idea was to hook up all these households and thereby enable local power trading. Together with fellow students from ETH, she submitted a research proposal to the Swiss Federal Office of Energy. Funding was granted, and the project quickly grew to include researchers from the University of St. Gallen and commercial partners such as Swiss utility company BKW and Swiss federal railway SBB.

Yet there was pushback in the early days. “A lot of the established power generators were at the kick-off meeting, and all of them were sceptical,” Ableitner recalls. A key argument was that people weren’t interested in local power trading and that it was too early for such a project. “We were all a bit down after the meeting,” she says.

Local Power Trading

Determined to press on regardless, the team developed a prototype of the software together with a smartphone app. One of Ableitner’s jobs was to design, programme and evaluate the app. Field testing was then carried out in partnership with the relatively small utility EW Walenstadt, which made the app available to 40 households in Walenstadt, a municipality in the canton of St. Gallen. Some generated their own solar power, others purchased the surplus, and the app – now named “PowerQuartier” – ensured smooth trading. By analysing thousands of data points from smart meters in homes, it was able to show real-time power consumption and who was trading with whom. It also provided a platform where households could bid to buy or sell power, thereby enabling an algorithm to calculate supply and demand.

When Ableitner and her colleagues looked at the usage data from the Walenstadt energy community, they were amazed at the take-up. Most households were logging on to the app at least once a month, some of them even daily. “They were far more conscious of their electricity consumption than households normally are – most people only check once a year, when their bill arrives!” says Ableitner. Power trading worked well, too, with households eagerly adjusting their bids and thereby helping to set prices on their own market. And then, all of a sudden, the pioneering project was hitting the headlines right across Switzerland. People kept calling the team at ETH to ask if they could join up. “They all wanted to know when it was coming to their hometown,” says Ableitner, smiling at the memory. Spurred on by the unexpected success of the project, Ableitner quickly moved to set up Exnaton in 2020, together with co-founders Anselma Wörner and Arne Meeuw.

«We help utilities to combine the old with the new.»      Liliane Ableitner

Combining old and new

One of the immediate difficulties the start-up encountered was knowing how to tell good advice from bad. “You get feedback all the time – from the colour of your logo to the structure of your business model,” Ableitner says. On the hunt for capital, the new company team held countless pitches for investors. All of them had suggestions. “Some said we should sell PowerQuartier to utilities, others advised against it, saying we should target households directly,” she explains.

In the end, Exnaton opted to work directly with the utilities. Tailoring their business to the growing number of households that produce their own electricity is a crucial step for these companies. They need to offer the kind of services that will enable them to keep hold of their customers during the energy transition – and that’s exactly what PowerQuartier does. Electricity data from local energy communities involves a complex mix of different tariffs at different times – something that can only be handled by a tool that operates at a suitably granular level. “We help utilities to combine the old with the new,” Ableitner explains. “With PowerQuartier, they can use their grid infrastructure to provide energy communities with the information and services they need.”

Virtual Workspace

Exnaton is still very much a David among utility Goliaths. So how does the company hold its own? “It really helps to have confidence in your own vision, because then you know what you’re fighting for,” says Ableitner. This is what much of her job entails. As CEO, she is the public face of the company, responsible for sales and marketing, and in charge of a team of 20. Some of the company’s employees work in the main office in Zurich, while others are based in Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Egypt. They meet up in a virtual workspace created by a tool called WorkAdventure. Here, employees assume avatars reminiscent of first-generation Nintendo characters and can confer one-on-one or join a virtual meeting room that automatically launches a video conference. “This helps forge a strong team bond despite the distance,” the CEO explains.

At present, most of the company’s customers are in Germany, Austria and Luxembourg. In Switzerland, by contrast, the idea of creating energy communities across whole neighbourhoods is still being discussed in parliament. Other countries are further ahead. In Austria, for example, utilities are now using PowerQuartier to offer energy communities a subscriber service costing between three and four euros a month. “In return, the utility takes care of the practical side of power trading,” explains Ableitner. Households, meanwhile, are provided with the power trading app and can do their bit for the environment – precisely what she wanted to achieve from the very start.

So what’s her next goal? “Obviously, I’m going to be concentrating on the company for the next few years,” she laughs. After that, she could easily imagine setting up a new company – and if she can find another opening in the market, it might well end up being another energy start-up.

Further information

Liliane Ableitner studied business informatics at the University of Bamberg, Germany. For her doctoral project at ETH Zurich, she co-developed software and a smartphone app that visualises energy data and enables energy communities to trade solar power produced by member households. In 2020, she joined forces with two partners from this project to launch the start-up Exnaton.

This text appeared in the 23/02 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.