Increasingly, smart devices are being connected to smart meters and other microchip-bearing pieces of energy-related apparatus. With smart home platforms such as British Gas’ Hive, German tado and Google’s Nest gaining market share, energy companies have access to valuable customer data while consumers can monitor, control and reduce energy consumption.
For energy suppliers, empowering consumers in the control of their consumption through smart technology could become pivotal in attracting and keeping customers amid mounting competition. However, as these energy suppliers engage more with consumers through smart, connected technology, they open themselves up to a range of risks.
Should the security of the system be breached or the installation fail to fulfil performance claims then consumers will not be sympathetic. So the pace of growth of connected devices in energy will depend on the successful combination of flawless performance with effortless usability and impregnable security.
With quality comes confidence
Naturally, utility companies are keen to have assurance. The level of confidence in the technology and its usability will be a crucial influence on the rate of expansion in the deployment of connected devices in energy.
As well as smart home devices, a powerful spur to M2M growth in the UK energy sector is the national smart metering rollout. The information and communication infrastructure under the stewardship of the Data and Communications Company (DCC) will create new openings. But it brings cause too for trepidation within the energy industry.
Gas and electricity provider RWE npower’s smart programme director, Neil Pennington, summarised this 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. Small energy suppliers too will need to interface with the DCC by the 2020 deadline.
The first Big Data challenge?
Arguably the installation of meters will be the first Big Data challenge in the smart metering programme. The rollout will involve upgrades in utility companies’ information technology including: changes in SAP and Oracle back-end systems; asset management systems; and operational job scheduling and handheld devices. With this complexity, the potential for failure at any stage of the rollout is high. The associated costs and delays when fixing defects are a strong reason to implement a stringent quality and testing programme.
Interfaces and back-end systems will have to be tested to ensure they can handle the load as it increases through rollout. Furthermore, large amounts of complex integration and acceptance testing will be required and need careful management.
All devices will need to be tested for compliance with the Smart Metering Equipment Technical Specifications version 2 to ensure they are interoperable with the DCC and interchangeable with other compliant devices.
This becomes keenly important when a consumer changes supplier. The new supplier (and the consumer) will expect their predecessor’s assets to work with DCC services in a consistent manner. Failure to do so will create stranded assets but perhaps more importantly it could produce discontented customers. Difficulties in switching supplier have already undermined energy retail competition in the UK – new obstacles would be acutely unwelcome with consumers having little tolerance for shortcomings.
The importance of assured performance and usability in connected devices is a responsibility that both senior executives and quality assurance teams are highly aware of. After all, for the energy sector, confidence in smart, connected technology will fuel the pace of change the market will demand.
The author is Angus Panton, director of Power and Communications at software quality specialist, SQS Group Ltd
CASE STUDY: Tried and tested
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, with no room for even a minor shortfall.
The company needed to be assured that the device was reliable, easy to operate and a sound reflection of the company’s commitment to its customers. It sought the services of SQS as an independent quality partner that would provide expertise with advice based on experience, and to manage the governance of testing.
Challenges for the brand
The primary requirement was the assurance that the quality and fitness for purpose of the device was such that it enhanced its brand, and minimised the risk of damage to reputation. It was crucially important that there was unflawed continuity between the branding on the device and the website via which customers would control it.
From the outset SQS provided comprehensive reporting via a ‘quality barometer’ throughout the development of its energy control device. This ‘quality barometer’ provided clarity at any given stage in the development that the company’s requirements were being met.
Specific testing activity included:
- Early exploratory testing to ensure that the system operation was intuitive and the device was easy to use.
- Engaging the utility company closely during the peak simulation exercise – with the IT infrastructure architect and database administrators present at test runs.
- Repeat testing on a range of browsers along with testing on different screens was vital. Tests encompassed usability as well as performance.
- Testing on the prototype version was manual to prevent any incorrect images or content being missed. This decision reflected the intensity of the need to ensure all the utility company’s aims were met, particularly its expectations for the device’s usability and for consistent branding.
- Non-functional tests included failover and disaster recovery with a top priority being to ensure user settings were preserved in either instance.
Ultimately, the utility company had confidence that the device would provide its customers with a reliable and resilient service and be a first-rate representation of the company.
For more information see: www.sqs.com