Senior Writer

National Grid’s energy transformation is fueled by IT

May 19, 2022
Digital TransformationEnergy Industry

Global CIO Adriana Karaboutis is modernizing the utility’s data stack and digitizing its grid to transform National Grid into an ‘intelligent connected utility’ capable of integrating with a range of energy sources.

Electricity grid
Credit: Shutterstock / yerv

Some might wonder why a high-level tech exec would quit and go work for a utility.

That’s what some people asked of Adriana “Andi” Karaboutis, the former CIO of Dell who left the computer giant and was named National Grid’s global chief information and digital officer in 2017.

Her answer? She gets to change the world.

“It’s one of the most stressful, but challenging jobs — it’s securing and transforming critical national infrastructure,” says Karaboutis, who is excited to be a player in not one but two major global initiatives: securing national infrastructures from cyberattacks and transforming the global energy grid in an era of epic technological advancements to slow climate change.

As global CIO, Karaboutis is the chief architect of the $20 billion British multinational’s digital transformation in the UK as well as in New York and New England. Currently, she is working with two governments to shore up cybersecurity of several NATO power grids and, at the same time, transforming the company into an “intelligent connected utility.”

Chances are high that the US President or British Prime Minister would more likely pick up a phone call from the CIO of National Grid these days than from a tech exec. Being on what she calls the “frontier” of the global energy transformation may keep her up some nights, but it is “rewarding” beyond words, says Karaboutis, who will be speaking at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium next week.

“You can imagine what the Infrastructure Act and the Go Green [initiatives] has meant for my budget. It’s gone up 30% to 40%,” she says. “I don’t want to give you exact numbers, but I had a smaller budget when I was the chief information officer at Dell.”

Modernizing a utility’s data architecture

National Grid is a big Microsoft Azure cloud customer due to its secure, proprietary nature, says Karaboutis, and is using a bevy of leading-edge tools, from Snowflake, Azure, and Matallion ETL for data tooling, Informatica for data quality, Reltio for master data management, and Blue Prism for RPA, to name a few.

Adriana “Andi” Karaboutis

Adriana “Andi” Karaboutis

National Grid

The utility is about one third of the way through its cloud transition and is focused on moving customer data and workforce data to the cloud first to reap the most business value. Next, Karaboutis says, National Grid will be migrating field-force data to the cloud from its fleet of 7,000 workers in the field serving consumers and businesses. 

“These capabilities allow us to reduce business risk as we move off of our monolithic, on-premise environments and provide cloud resiliency and scale,” the CIO says, noting National Grid also has a major data center consolidation under way as it moves more data to the cloud. “We’re very mature in our data architecture and what we want. It’s getting close.”

Not all data will be migrated off premises — just the data that makes sense running in the cloud, she says.

“I call it cloud density in the right way,” Karaboutis adds. “All of our investments are about value. And in so many cases, it’s not pure ROI and cost savings but it’s removing hidden costs and shared costs of managing technical debt, like not having to do upgrades. It’s about increased security to the state. It’s about capacity management and resiliency. All of that together is how we’re measuring the value of going to the cloud.”

Staffing up to shift to product-based IT

Talent, data, and cloud operating models. Those are the core ingredients of National Grid’s digitization efforts, which Karaboutis equates to building the “intelligent connected utility.”

First is building and buying talent to power National Grid’s IT transformation, which includes digitizing the grid and connecting it to a wide range of internet of thing (IoT) sensors and devices and to the host of emerging renewable energy sources such as solar, wind turbines, hydro innovations, and even battery technology. National Grid, which has pledged to be fossil free by 2050, also has a geothermal project under way in New York.

To accomplish this, Karaboutis will be relying on 1,400 badged IT employees and another 2,500 contractors. Her budget has also gone up significantly, and so she has hired product managers as part of a transition to convert IT operations to an agile, product-based operating model. Karaboutis has also hired UX designers, data scientists, enterprise architects, and RPA writers but she can’t find the “talent density” quickly enough.

To fill the gap, Karaboutis is using Pluralsight and LinkedIn for upskilling initiatives and continues to outsource application development and maintenance to Wipro, IBM, and Atos. National Grid is also working with traditional recruiters to build “talent density” and is partnering with  agile innovation consultancies such as Thoughtworks, Giant Machines, and Palantir, among others, Karaboutis says.

Optimizing with machine learning

Meanwhile, National Grid is busy building its network to interface with solar, wind, and battery storage. It is also exploring natural renewable gas derived from garbage and has purchased wind farms. But it is keeping its eyes on, and using advanced technology, to optimize its core electricity business.

As part of that, National Grid is applying Microsoft AI machine learning (ML) algorithms to optimize its “vegetation management” pruning plans as part of project “Copperleaf” to prevent fires and other catastrophes. It is also using geospatial technologies in concert with artificial intelligence to make the “right decisions” about how to maintain undersea cables and to make routing and investment decisions.

The utility is also exploring ways to deploy ML algorithms to better manage electricity outages that still occur during power surges, such as during commercial breaks from the World Cup or royal weddings. Such investments in “electricity balancing” may in the future rely on battery technology because it can be stored, Karaboutis says.

But for all these efforts toward transforming National Grid into an “intelligent connected utility,” it’s the portfolio of IT projects already under way that energizes Karaboutis. Her grid of advanced data tools and platforms such as Snowflake and Azure is what will make the connections and integrations to whatever power sources National Grid will turned to the future. And data is that grid’s current.

“We used to say data is an asset of the company, right?” Karaboutis notes. “Today, we know it, we breathe it, we live it, but we don’t have to say it. It’s the quality of data that we’re constantly working on and improving” that will make National Grid’s vision possible, the global CIO says.