Utilities – from risky business to smart, successful connectivity

Angus Panton, SQS Ltd

Guest post by Angus Panton, Director of Power and Communications at software quality specialist, SQS Group Ltd.

Utilities are driving much of the action in consumer M2M – but it’s a disruptive technology for suppliers and needs careful quality control.

Players in the world of M2M communications are focusing on one of the fastest growing application sectors: energy and utilities. Consumer-based equipment such as smart meters and internet-controlled heating controls will be rolled out to possibly hundreds of millions of homes to help save energy and give people smarter options for managing their lifestyles.

Major consumer electronics players are now making moves into smarter home technology, such as Apple with its HomeKit – a suite of tools to control most home devices from iPhones and iPads. This will be big business indeed, and there is likely to be a flood of apps for the consumer utilities market in particular. By 2023, two-thirds of the 30 billion smart, wirelessly connected devices in homes and industry worldwide will be for utilities, as recent research by Analysys Mason shows.

Already, markets such as the UK, Germany and the US are seeing the introduction of remote and automatic central heating controls run from mobile devices, enabling consumers to manage their energy costs using web-based technology that has driven so much innovation and convenience in other areas such as mobile commerce and social media.

Take the UK, where three players are active in wireless home heating controls: Hive, owned by energy giant British Gas; the Google subsidiary, Nest Labs; and German firm tado. Each uses mobile device apps to simplify the process of running home central heating from anywhere. Functions include:

  • automatic response to weather patterns;
  • firing up the heating from a location app when a resident is heading home; and
  • learning from a householder’s manual tweaks to replicate them automatically.

For energy suppliers, empowering users to keep on top of their consumption using smart, connected devices is rapidly becoming a differentiator in the largely commodity-based utilities market, and in turn can provide suppliers with a potential goldmine of marketing, customer data, operational opportunities and substantial revenues.

And for society the potential prize is huge in terms of cutting and controlling energy consumption. British Gas estimates, for example, that as many as 7.8 million homes are being heated every year in the UK while no one is at home.

But like other areas in the new world of IoT, there are various technological and regulatory hurdles that carry risk for utilities entering the market. Should the security of the system be breached or should the installation fail to fulfil claims for its performance then consumers may lose trust. To add pressure, suppliers may have regulators and governments breathing down their necks as demands for energy savings take hold.

The pace of growth of smart technologies in energy will depend on combining faultless performance with ease of use and security to ensure customer confidence. Naturally, companies are keen to have assurance that applications they offer to the market will work as advertised – and this technology poses particular disruptive challenges given the interconnection issues across networks, as with any complex IT system.

As Adrian Tuck, vice chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, which develops M2M standards, says: “I believe we are about to go through a revolution in the energy space every bit as big as the telecoms revolution.”

Scaling up for smart meters

As well as smart home devices, a powerful spur to M2M growth in the energy sector is coming from the rollout of smart energy meters. Along with consumers’ sensitivities relating to security, the sheer size of the programme – from the immense installation task through to the meter’s operation – carries huge potential for positive or negative impact on consumer acceptance of smart connected devices. In the UK, replacing 53 million conventional domestic power and gas meters in about 30 million premises by 2020 will be Britain’s biggest home energy technology change for more than 40 years.

A smart decision has been made in the UK, as a licence to manage the communications infrastructure for the Smart Metering Implementation Programme has been granted to a special company, the Data and Communications Company (DCC). But there is trepidation within the energy industry. For example, as Neil Pennington, smart programme director at energy firm RWE npower, said recently at an industry seminar: “Testing must be robust – end-to-end across industry parties and the DCC, and in live situations. If interoperability is not consistent and systems and processes not failsafe, it risks undermining consumer confidence.”

The imperative to test rigorously is clear. Large energy suppliers must be ready for DCC interface testing in autumn 2015. They have huge rollout profiles that will run to installing tens of thousands of meters a week.

Even before smart metering is in play, the installation programme carries significant risk. Any programme that involves home visits increases reputational risks from poor service. According to consultant Ernst and Young: “With so little upside, the energy supplier is looking carefully at the costs and risks.”

Quality to the fore

Arguably installation will be the first “big data” challenge in the smart metering programme. The task will involve upgrades in their information technology including changes in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, asset management, job scheduling and handheld devices.

Interfaces and back-end systems will have to be tested to ensure they can handle the accelerating load as it increases through rollout. Much complex integration and operation acceptance testing will be required and will need careful management.

Software quality is now playing an increasingly important role in the value of organisations, and the sheer pace of change in the energy sector puts such quality into sharp relief. For companies facing such major and looming deadlines, testing cannot be done late in a project lifecycle as it may well be too late to address defects, increasing the cost exponentially.

Energy sector business strategists will surely differ in their interpretation of what is needed for success in a digital utility market. But crucial requirements for the industry and its customers will be assured effective, resilience and reliability in the technologies. And customer experience needs to be assessed equally rigorously because ease-of-use can be as potent in influencing perceptions as sound performance.

The importance of assured performance and usability in connected devices to the development of the energy industry is a responsibility that the testing industry is keenly sensitive to. IoT offers energy firms a real opportunity to connect better with its customers. For the energy sector, confidence in smart, connected technology will be the fuel it needs to achieve, and benefit from, the pace of change the market will surely demand.

Smart home device under test

A UK energy utility venturing into the remote energy control market with a new device needed confidence that the product would enhance its reputation by fulfilling customer expectations.

The company needed assurance that the device was reliable, easy to operate and a sound reflection of its commitment to customers. SQS was selected as an independent quality partner to provide expert testing advice based on its utilities sector experience.

SQS provided comprehensive reporting via a “quality barometer” throughout the development of the energy control device. Specific testing included early testing to ensure that operation was intuitive and reliable as well as the device was easy to use, and engaging the utility company closely during a peak simulation exercise – with the IT infrastructure architect and database administrators present at test runs.

Repeat testing on a range of browsers was carried out and testing on different mobile screens was vital. Testing on the prototype version was manual to prevent any incorrect images or content being missed. Non-functional tests included failover and disaster recovery with a priority being to ensure user settings were preserved in either instance.

Ultimately, the utility company had confidence to be one of the first to launch a new, efficient, reliable and secure remote energy control service successfully.

Related posts