ESB CIO: How AI and cloud will change the utilities industry

4 Feb 2022

Mary O’Connor. Image: ESB

ESB’s Mary O’Connor discusses the democratisation of the energy industry and how AI and analytics play a role in electricity flows.

Mary O’Connor is the chief information officer at Irish energy company ESB. Having worked in a wide range of roles and disciplines across the company for more than 30 years, O’Connor has a strong track record of developing and implementing strategies and change.

In her role as CIO, O’Connor is responsible for driving digital transformation as well as overseeing the company’s cybersecurity strategy and risk management, along with enterprise architecture, data, analytics and AI and IT strategy.

Future Human

She has led teams at all levels of the organisation and is an IT graduate of Trinity College Dublin. She is also a coach and mentor within ESB and is passionate about developing people to enable them to reach their full potential.

‘Companies will not be able to embrace digital without embracing cloud’

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

The experience of the last two years has accelerated our need to invest in digital technologies across all our activities, so that we have the resilience and agility to sustain our business in a world where the pace and scale of change is ever increasing.

To support this, we are in the process of transforming our people experience and our customer experience across ESB on our journey to a digital utility through a programme of work we call Accelerate Digital.

Accelerate Digital is an ESB-wide programme, led by our businesses working with our centres of excellence in CIO and IT delivery. We are evolving our culture, shifting mindsets, encouraging new behaviours and learning new digital skills.

How big is your team?

We have more than 100 in CIO with approximately 800 staff and delivery partners in total in IT. We work very closely with our vendors and partners and have managed services as part of our capability.

We are growing the number of ESB people that are in strategic and fundamental roles to ensure that we build and grow our own capabilities.

We also see the development of our ecosystem of partners and vendors as key to our success in digital transformation. We envisage many opportunities where we can drive new innovative products and services by combining capabilities, data and technology from across the ecosystem.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

We see digital transformation as foundational to our business strategy and purpose, which is all about enabling the transition to a low-carbon economy. The energy industry is becoming democratised with an increasing shift in electricity generation from large-scale power stations to distributed microgeneration.

This requires a very different way of managing the electricity flows on our network and we are seeing the use of data, analytics and AI as key to optimising those flows and minimising investment in physical infrastructure.

On the customer-facing aspects of our businesses, we are using data and digital to transform how we engage with and interact with our customers. This has accelerated on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic as customers’ preferences and experiences have changed and there is a much greater uptake on digital channels.

Our Accelerate Digital programme spans the entirety of our organisation. The programme principles include customer centricity, employee centricity, digital ways of working, value focus, becoming data driven and agile working with minimum viable product approach.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world?

There are so many to choose from and two that I see changing the utilities industry are AI and cloud.

AI will do this with its ability to process large volumes of data to come up with solutions to complex problems and inform real-time data-driven decisions.

With the deployment of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and smart sensor-equipped hardware throughout ESB, the network of the future will have vast quantities of data to manage. This data will create a more complex energy system that requires the orchestration of distributed energy resources, balancing renewables and offering deeper insight and control over energy usage.

AI and machine learning will be key to how ESB manages and leverages data to optimise grid operations as the anticipated demand for electricity grows to support the growing volume of electric vehicles. In ESB Networks, we are using AI today to carry out quality audits on smart metre installations. By using this AI, we can achieve a level of quality audits on installations that would not be possible using traditional human desk-based audits.

Cloud will be both transformational and disruptive and offers utilities improved scalability, efficiency, agility, security and the ability to process and handle large volumes of data and enable the speed that solutions can be brought to market. Cloud technologies are foundational and key enablers to all organisations’ digital journey and companies will not be able to embrace digital without embracing cloud.

Throughout the pandemic we have seen the impact that cloud has had in the shift to remote working and the roll-out of collaboration tools. This shift is coupled with a significant climate impact in reducing, potentially permanently, the need for as much business travel and commuting.

Cloud-based solutions impact both our business and our personal lives and how we manage the energy consumption in our homes through smart devices and smart thermostats means we are all now on a transformative cloud journey.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

Security is a very challenging space with an ever-growing threat landscape for all sectors. At ESB, we are currently focused on shifting our culture to one of personal responsibility for cybersecurity as well as increasing our cyber maturity across IT and operational technology.

Coupled with hybrid working, it brings another level of complexity and we are very focused on protecting our businesses and data for our people and our customers.

As operators of critical national infrastructure, ESB is increasingly looking to cloud as something that reduces, rather than increases, risk.

Our journey to cloud is bringing enhanced cybersecurity benefits. We leverage built-in security features and specialised cloud security tools to ensure that our organisation’s resources, assets and data are protected.

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