Seven priorities for developing smart energy devices?

Angus Panton, SQS Ltd

Guest post by Angus Panton, Director of Power and Communications at SQS.

There are major growth opportunities for utility companies through smart meters and smart home platforms, provided they address quality and consumer driven issues.

According to mobile phone giant, Vodafone, in its latest M2M barometer report, 20% of utilities and energy firms have now adopted smart grid and smart metering systems, and 17% have also introduced smart home and office offerings — a category that includes home automation, intelligent heating and connected security systems.

Machine-to-machine (M2M) communications underpin the new wave of home energy technology, including smart meters and smart home platforms. We believe that risks associated with providing consumers with smart energy devices can be combatted only through rigorous quality and testing programs that are introduced early on in the product development lifecycle.

For many energy suppliers, particularly large companies with extensive legacy IT systems, the connected smart home is a new and ambitious frontier with many challenges, not least integration with core IT systems, security and usability for consumers. As such, energy suppliers’ involvement carries risk. Should security be breached or the installation fail to fulfil claims for its performance then consumers may look elsewhere for their services.

The pace of growth of smart technologies in energy will rely on combining great functionality with ease of use and high levels of security. Naturally, companies are keen to have assurance that applications they offer to the market will work as advertised – but connected energy devices pose particular challenges given the interconnection issues across networks, as with any complex IT system.

SQS recently released a white paper “From risky business to smart, successful connectivity”. It identifies priority areas for successfully developing connected devices in the utilities sector, including:

1. Ensure a good customer experience

Consumers will be using smart energy devices every day and so user interfaces and usability are especially critical for the roll out of connected devices and home energy applications. As with applications such as controlling thermostats from smartphones, thorough acceptance testing of the user interface is vital. Real home environments vary widely and utilities need to be confident that their devices will work in most homes: test labs can be used to replicate common variables such as wireless signal strength and meter location.

2. Integrate core IT systems

CRM and billing are at the heart of utility company operations, and here the usual terminology – ‘end-to-end’ integration – really is important. The last thing a utility company wants is to lose the immense value that new apps and mobile communications can bring. The smooth integration of core IT systems and customer communications is critical. Also on the agenda is the provisioning and installation of smart meters, which will lead to workforce management and operational changes that affect suppliers and their ability to roll out millions of meters effectively.

3. Recognise the Big Data challenge

The huge volume of meters and data generated presents a ‘big data’ challenge, as smart meters can take readings as often as every 30 minutes rather than the current monthly cycle for ‘dumb’ meters. This means that integration and testing of non-functional performance and operational acceptance testing of billing and data analysis suites is essential.

4. Adopt best practice

Meter systems can involve several different suppliers, including special companies set up to manage communications and infrastructure, as in the UK with the Data and Communications Company (DCC). The need for clear communication with all parties is vital, and best practice should be a shared testing in a repository so all parties have a single view of the project.

5. Consider the growth of open platforms

Many connected energy systems are proprietary applications based on customised hardware. Now the market is moving rapidly towards customer choice driven by smartphones and new smart home development platforms for certain operating systems, such as Apple’s HomeKit. This will increase the amount of integration and testing needed but will be vital to compete in the market.

6. Adopt software quality

Accepted approaches in developing applications on time and that deliver the best customer value include Agile development and ‘shifting left’ to introduce quality and testing earlier in the project development lifecycle. This can be a big change in mindset for in-house software teams, but it is important in new application areas that have complex integration needs or require the involvement of consumers and regulators.

7. Recognise the complexity of end-to-end testing

Testing needs to be robust, end-to-end and conducted in both lab and live environments. If user interfaces and systems are not consistent then processes could easily fail – just one of the reasons why there may be concern from consumers. Hardware issues can be more difficult to solve than software problems and fixes can take longer to implement, so testing needs to take into account these differences.

There are other concerns in the picture, such as security and resilience, which also have to be addressed as part of the quality regime. And this isn’t just about energy applications, which are just the start of a major opportunity in the connected home. Those energy companies that get it right with a flexible, fast development platform will have all manner of business opportunities open to them.

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