CIO cover stories don’t tend to be about IT leaders that see their primary purpose as keeping the lights on, but in the case of David Lister and everyone at National Grid, keeping the lights on, pumps pumping, welders welding, computing processing, heaters heating and the TV blaring is exactly what they concern themselves with.
To keep the National Grid operating requires an IT strategy and an information leader that is switched on to more than reliability.
“Our mission is to service the energy suppliers by ensuring that energy flows at the pressure and frequency required,” Lister, the organisation’s CIO, says of the unique role National Grid has in taking electricity from power stations to customers, or carrying gas via a pipeline from storage to customer again.
“We maintain transmission networks and balance them with supply and demand and we do it on a real-time basis. That means we build, maintain and operate transmission systems for gas and electricity,” he says.
National Grid operates the nationwide high-voltage electricity power network across the UK as well as the national gas pipeline that was once part of Transco.
The company has expanded into the US in recent years with an electricity network in the northeastern states.
The National Grid is responsible for 82,000 miles of gas pipeline and 9000 miles of cable in the UK, and 120,000 miles of cable in the US.
Lister explains that the old challenge of every UK household switching on the kettle at the same time (the ad break during Coronation Street) remains.
“The peaks in mornings and evenings exist and it’s a constantly moving thing depending on weather, events and the time of year,” he says.
“We settle the system, we work with the power generators to bring energy into the system and pass it on, then someone else bills customers. We sit between them and there are a lot of changing elements to it. We are not influenced by volumes,” he adds.
National Grid caused a stir in 2009 when a heavyweight report it commissioned demonstrated that a large-scale shift to renewable energy production would not require a similar increase in fossil fuel-produced power as a backup resource.
According to the National Grid and its 82-page report, variability in power production is manageable.
“With pressure and volumes lower it makes our infrastructure last longer, so we are totally aligned with energy efficiency moves,” adds Lister.
“It’s a massively changing world. As energy efficiency increases, carbon production moves to renewable, which changes everything about the network. It used to be that all the energy was in the North and we shipped it down. In the new world energy surrounds us, whether it is wind or solar. Wind is not predictable, so our job of balancing has to be more agile than ever before,” he says.
And that’s why the CIO role at National Grid is such a powerful one.
“The big focus is on the next generation of technology to support this changing energy landscape. We have a lot of legacy and the amount of investment in the next 20 to 30 years will be about being more agile.
“They are exciting challenges. There are not many jobs where it’s all about innovation. It’s a fascinating business and it’s almost a secret what we do.”
Lister’s IT network includes three command centres that provide resilience to each other round the clock.
From these, teams of people balance the supply and demand on the network while others go out to the energy production market with a plan of what energy requirements will be for the days, weeks and months ahead.
Alongside Lister’s technology role, he is also responsible for physical security – a high priority for an organisation that is the veins of the nation.
“We have hundreds of substations and they all have a significant level of technology embedded into them. Sophisticated telemetry is embedded into them that monitors and protects the network so my focus is physical and cyber security,” he says, adding that he has an ex-FBI agent among his security team.
When discussing the CIO role, Lister is typically no-nonsense.
“I’m not one of those people that harp on that IT must be represented on the board, it depends on your organisation and its mission," he says.
"Where technology sits in manufacturing or finance or energy, it really depends on its importance to your mission. At Reuters IT was mission critical, but in retail or FMCG marketing takes the lead.
"IS is one of the few global operations at National Grid as we can leverage best practice and provide a better value to our shareholders."
IS consists of 500 people in-house, with 1500 at key partners focusing on National Grid.
Responding to change
The role of technology at the National Grid is changing in line with the energy and utilities industries.
“There will be a need to have more automation and more predictive responses. In the future the use of analytics and looking at the data from things like smart meters will mean that data levels require advanced modelling. Also we are involved in advancements in weather forecasting to help take out the unpredictable and reduce variability.
“We are already at the leading edge of being able to analyse and drive insight out of data, but we need to better at that and to respond to events faster,” he says.