Smart meters will be introduced in Ireland this September

Energia Group CIO Catherine Gardiner is preparing and securing the energy player for a digital world of smart meters and internet of things devices.

Catherine Gardiner is CIO of Energia Group where she leads various ongoing organisation-wide business transformation projects across the group, specialising in solving complex business, technology and people issues.

With a background in information management and business administration, Gardiner has worked in the energy and technology sector for almost 20 years.

The Energia Group consists of Energia and Power NI. Energia supplies conventional and renewable electricity to the business energy markets across Ireland and the domestic energy market in the Republic of Ireland. Power NI supplies electricity to around 500,000 homes and businesses in Northern Ireland.

Tell me about your own role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy?
As CIO, my responsibilities have evolved since I was appointed in 2011. Initially, I primarily acted as a service provider to the business, managing availability and the reliability of our systems. Like many CIOs my role has broadened where today I work to educate at board level on the technology requirements of the business, guiding the business generally with regard to digital disruption and how the big technology trends will impact us and our customers.

The energy industry is disaggregating with expectation driving our innovations in the area of digital, so my role is to look at learnings from across other sectors and areas, championing innovation within our business. As my role has evolved, the importance of culture has come increasingly to the fore, particularly in the area of innovation and client solutions. That includes discovering and nurturing new ideas across our business and in the work we do with external partners. As we move from a service provider position to that of a business partner, we are working to bring entrepreneurial and agile thinking to the fore to benefit our customers.

Are you spearheading any major product/IT initiatives you can tell us about?
Smart meters will be introduced in the Republic of Ireland next year, which is an important initiative for us. In my role, I need to work with the team to ensure our systems can handle the additional information and data so that it can be utilised effectively. Smart meters are another example of a connected device, so this is an extension of the capabilities we already offer with regard to the Netatmo smart thermostat and other smart technologies.
This is underpinned by one unified Microsoft cloud-based digital platform to ensure the entire process is seamless and yields better insights. We are also developing innovative digital devices and channels, utilising not only apps but also in-home assistance technology as well as processing technology that utilises chatbots and emerging technologies such as AI.

For example, one interesting area is peer-to-peer trading whereby if a customer has solar panels, then they can sell back their excess power to the grid or their neighbours via a digital platform. This will require a shift change in how energy is regulated but we are positioning ourselves to be ready when the market rules allow. Fundamentally, it is about ensuring our digital transformation meets the current and future needs of both our business and our customers.

How big is your team? Do you outsource where possible?
Our team consists of approximately 100 people, which is a mixture of permanent staff from across the business and on-site contractors. Our team is primarily made up of technical analysts, business analysts, project managers and developers. We currently outsource all our hosting and desktop services, and procure a variety of software development services.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation and how are you addressing it?
Within the energy industry, we see a number of disruptors that are enabled by digital transformation. The first being decarbonisation – so, for example, the electrification of vehicles and general overall move away from non-renewable energy sources. Technology is also enabling the evolution of consumers to become prosumers, being producers and consumers of electricity.

As a business we are expanding from traditional-only partnerships to develop digital ecosystems consisting of tech entrepreneurs right through to established suppliers. Our internal processes have been developed to be agile and data driven.

We expect to receive 6bn points of data over the next few years so we need to ensure our systems are scalable, responsive and secure. With regard to security we are keenly aware of the challenges posed by emerging technologies and internet of things (IoT) devices in the home. Given our role, we have a responsibility to our customers and broader communities that we serve. We are investing heavily in cybersecurity in line with our broader digital transformation.

Finally, as part of our overall development as an organisation, we are seeking active collaborations with organisations such as universities, funders, venture capitalists etc to ensure we have a strong pipeline of new products and growth opportunities.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?
I believe IoT is changing the world around us on a daily basis, and will continue to do so in the future. We see it in the home, and it is having a real impact in the energy industry. IoT is transforming the way customers manage their energy needs and interact with us directly as their provider. This sort of behavioural shift will require us as a provider – as well as regulators and governments in the broader sense – to evolve.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?
Security is naturally very important across all our internal and external operations. We supply approximately 25pc of Ireland’s total energy, 21pc of the country’s total wind power and one in three Irish SMEs. So when you consider how connected we are to communities across the island of Ireland, any threat to our business or infrastructure could have broad consequences. We have a centralised structure with regard to our own and customer data, and are continuously training and scenario testing our systems to ensure they are secure. Based on my experience and the work we undertake, I believe education is the key to better protecting data.