National Grid ESO - Cian innovation engineer

A Day in the Life of an Innovation Strategy Manager

Our colleagues are at the heart of the ESO, working hard to operate a safe and reliable electricity system, whilst supporting the transition to a greener, and more efficient system for future generations. 

Cian McLeavey-Reville gives us an insight into his time at the ESO and tells us what an Innovation Strategy Manager does.

National Grid ESO - banner of ESO colleague Cian

Can you tell us how you came to join the ESO and your energy industry career path? 

My undergraduate degree was in Chemical and Process Engineering, and I then decided to pursue my interest in renewable energy via a Masters in Sustainable Energy Systems at Edinburgh University. 

After my studies I went into consultancy that specialised in decentralised energy. This gave me a really broad understanding of exciting new technologies like heat pumps and battery storage, but also of the policy and regulation drivers behind these markets, and how energy companies needed to change their business models to adapt.  

I then moved to EDF Energy, where I spent a couple of years in Corporate Strategy before moving to a role in their retail business. 

There, I led two teams that focused on competitor strategy and new business development. We used customer segmentation along with market and competitor insight to inform new product and proposition development. Our ultimate aim was to improve our competitive position in the market at a time of intense competition from new entrants.  

In 2016 I moved to National Grid ESO, joining the Innovation team. To start with I worked on applying strategy and market insight to finding a better way to do things. Now my focus is on solving the system challenges we face on the path to net zero. 

My role is so incredibly diverse – no day is ever the same. I am constantly learning, not only about all of the complex activities the ESO undertakes, but also about the myriad of ground-breaking ideas and technologies that are being developed to enable the energy system transition. 

Can you tell us about your role as Innovation Strategy Manager? 

The three key aspects of my role are: 

  1. Delivering the ESO Innovation Strategy 

  1. Engaging with customers and stakeholders 

  1. Developing innovation projects 

The ESO Innovation Strategy outlines where we want to focus our attention and investment over the next couple of years. It’s refreshed every year, and this is done by consulting both our internal ESO business partners, as well as our customers and stakeholders in ESO. 

I go on a virtual road trip through ESO, understanding the various future challenges the different teams face, and exploring where innovation can help.  

We realise that we cannot solve the energy system transition on our own, so we run a consultation with all of our stakeholders, and we try to hold as many in depth and involved conversations as possible. In my role, I also lead on our customer and stakeholder engagement, so I’ll have one of these kinds of chats almost every day of the week.  

Every year we hold an open innovation event, where we run an open call for ideas, and we take the best 10 or so forward to a two-day event where we work alongside third-party innovators and ESO experts to turn these ideas into innovation project proposals. 

The next one we hold will be a virtual event, currently planned for early 2021, where we’ll choose some big-ticket challenges and ask the market for their help and thoughts on how we solve them. 

In the past we’ve chosen strategic priorities such as addressing the reduction in system stability caused by higher amounts of renewable generation and fewer synchronous plants. 

We’ve also asked for ideas to solve whole energy system challenges, such as how to use flexibility from electric heating to solving transmission challenges. We’re currently thinking about which areas to focus on for our next event.  

I spend a lot of my time working on developing innovation project ideas. I’m currently working on applying machine learning to satellite imagery, to predict the movement of clouds. 

This will allow a much more accurate short-term forecast of how much electricity will be generated from each of the 1m plus solar panels in Great Britain. These improved forecasts will enable our control room to make much more economic decisions when balancing the system. 

This new model will complement a previous innovation project which applied machine learning to solar forecasting – using historic solar outturn data to train a random forest regression model to predict future generation more accurately. This programme of innovation resulted in a 33% improvement in our solar forecast error, saving millions of pounds a year in balancing costs.  

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work? 

Our projects haven’t been impacted too much because so much of the work we do can be done remotely and using desk-based methods.  For me personally the lockdown has been manageable as I can catch up with colleagues and stakeholders on video calls. 

The early stages of project development is tougher, as this is when you really benefit from getting all stakeholders in a room for a few hours to brainstorm over a whiteboard. However, I am constantly learning about new tricks and tools to facilitate this kind of activity in a virtual environment.  Our next open innovation event will be really interesting. I’m hoping we’ll see some real benefits from holding the event virtually, such as attracting much more international participation. 

I do think the pandemic will change a lot of our working patterns, and in many positive ways. I live in London, so would usually spend over 10 hours of my week travelling to and from Warwick. 

It’s good that people are now used to working and engaging with each other remotely, so this time can be reduced and spent more effectively. 

Overall, I count myself very lucky. I’m recently married and at the moment, it’s just me and my wife in our two-bed flat, so we have a spare room to take calls in. 

Almost all of my teammates, including my manager, have had to handle young kids as well as their jobs during lockdown. I’ve been amazed at how well they’ve coped. 

The biggest downer for me is that I’ve not been able to see my parents since last year, and I’m really hoping I can fly over to Ireland and visit for Christmas. If I have to quarantine I will!