In common with many Western governments, the UK has embarked on a hugely ambitious program designed to manage and measure energy distribution and consumption across the country much more efficiently.
A central pillar of that is arguably the country’s largest ever deployment of IT: the installation of 50 million integrated gas and electricity smart meters in 30 million households, a roll-out that is in pilot but which will begin in earnest early next year and go on until 2020.
But the undertaking is not just a complete technical change from today’s utility-specific and unconnected analog devices: the build up extends to a supporting infrastructure of data communications, security and data centers; it involves the redrafting of the legal framework surrounding utility metering; and it means a radical change in customers billing systems.
Change on such a scale naturally means involving a multi-dimensional matrix of interested parties and stakeholders, all hungry to access and share often-highly sensitive information and to participate in planning sessions and, ultimately, decision-making. And for the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) which is responsible for the smart meter program, that wide-ranging engagement has presented a huge challenge from the outset in 2009.
“This is one of the largest [government] infrastructure programs so far in this century,” says David Rigal, operations manager for DECC’s smart metering implementation program. “It means working with a whole range of stakeholders”: as well as DECC’s own team of 150, those include energy companies, consumer groups, manufacturers of existing and new meters, providers of other utility services such as water, the technology infrastructure provides, energy industry regulators and, of course, various government ministries and politicians.
The traditional way to engage with such groupings, says Rigal, would have been to run countless workshops and consultations, where information would be mailed and shared, meetings arranged and issues worked out. But almost from the outset that was deemed impractical — not only because of the size of the stakeholder group and the timescale of the project, but by the sheer cost that would be involved in running all the permutations of face-to-face workshops.
The solution for DECC was to manage collaboration and content in the cloud. And, as Rigal puts it, the market leader was on its doorstep in the shape of London-based Huddle.
“Huddle enables us to work through what is a very complex program — which would have otherwise involved a very complex set of time-consuming and costly workshops,” says Rigal.
“We not only need to collaborate, we need to see that we are collaborating,” he says. “Given that we looking at a very, very tight schedule, it was important to us that we not only had secure communication but we had a clear audit trail. We were sending out information to our technical partners which we needed them to comment on, and in some cases if we weren’t certain they were getting that information then we would have had to go back to sending it out by email or post.” Huddle provides that verification, he says.
But DECC also needs to be seen to be collaborating securely. “In setting up our various Huddle groups, we had to have a way to communicate easily with the majority of our stakeholders outside the GSI [the government's secure intranet] and bring in and export materials in a simply way. If we couldn't do that, Huddle wouldn’t be any use to us.”
The Huddle platform itself is certified to the UK government’s IL2 (Impact Level 2) assurance standard, which was a pre-requisite for DECC.
The benefits are pretty transparent, says Rigal. Not only has his department had no need to hire the additional administrators that would have been required to handle scores of face-to-face workshops, but the flexibility of the online collaboration has precipitated much faster decision-making. “At the start of the program, we were running three workshops a week, and that is just mind-boggling in its complexity when you have to plan a workshop with two weeks notice to everyone, hire the room, get the people in, send out all the papers, distribute the minutes,” says Rigal. Any comparison between that and the Huddle collaboration is difficult, but “the cuts has been substantially,” he emphasizes.“But more important to us is speed of delivery. We are on a vey tight schedule on this program and the fact that we can use Huddle to speed matters up by several weeks per workshops has been very, very important.” In the case of technical specifications that are distributed to experts and stakeholders for comment, Rigal says DECC is saving around three week’s turnaround per document.
The upshot of all that is DECC has been able to move much quicker towards its stated goal of starting a major implementation of smart meters next year. (Around 300,000 smart meters have been deployed in earlier phases.)
With the ministry’s own impact assessment suggesting the rollout will result in £6.2 billion ($10.3bn) worth of net benefits, there is more than a little focus on project execution. “And the kind of time savings we’ve see with Huddle have been absolutely vital [with that]”
David Rigal was speaking at Think Cloud for Government 2014 in London