Technology conducts utility performance
Municipal utilities often are exempt from competition in the first phases of customer choice, but that has not stopped those running most of the nations more than 2,300 municipally owned electric and natural gas providers from taking the steps necessary to be more competitive. Preparing for competition, in fact, is considered a key challenge at most city utilities.
One of the ways that challenge is met is through systems and software upgrades moves that ultimately translate into lower costs and better customer service. City-owned utilities must use available technology to make the transition from being just another department at City Hall to being a highly visible energy services provider and one of consumer choice.
Utilities must know their customers and be able to categorize those customers in order to launch successful products and services and best serve the most valuable energy users. Like their counterparts in the private sector, municipalities are leveraging customer information like never before in order to stay on the competitive edge.
Systems and software upgrades are taking place in a number of areas throughout most city utilities. Common modules include billing and metering; customer information systems; geographical information systems; work management; and customer service. All the technological changes
point to one goal. The greatest challenge in the next few years as we migrate toward a competitive environment is keeping customers, says Alex Pettit, director of information services for Denton (Texas) Municipal Utilities.
We have a good reputation for great customer service and having competitive rates. We have to be able to maintain that. We have to do it through better information and better processes. Were concerned from both the utility and customer standpoint, but also as a municipality. We intend to stay in this business.
Deregulation pushes spending Like their counterparts in the private sector, municipal utilities are spending millions annually to maintain their information systems and management software. The difference for municipalities, in many cases, is that the information services department serves not only the utilitys interest but that of other city departments as well.
Data gathered last year in a technology report by Chartwell, an Atlanta-based research firm that serves the utility and energy services industry, shows that municipal utilities set aside anywhere from $50,000 to $20 million annually in their information technology budgets for everything from maintenance to hardware and software spending. Deregulation and Y2K compliance are key reasons for the high budgets, according to the report.
At Marietta Power, the city-owned utility serving the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, systems upgrades are driven by Y2K compliance and the need to better serve customers. Beginningin 1997, Marietta upgraded its AS400 servers, installed seven new NT servers and rebuilt its IT network from a token ring to Ethernet. The city then upgraded more than 20 major applications.
Marietta is focusing on two strategies to improve customer service through its IS upgrades: One is to have a really flexible billing system so you can tailor to the customers needs, says MIS Director Gene Estensen. Another is we spent a considerable amount of money on our GIS and integrated it with all our applications. The latter is expected to improve efficiency and emergency response times.
Improving customer service Improved operations can help utilities save money as well as retain customers. One of the nations largest municipal utilities, City Public Service of San Antonio, last year implemented a new system to help minimize costs and maximize efficiency. The utility used the purchase and installation of a new mobile workforce management system to make a public relations splash, touting the system as a superior technological upgrade and showing the citys dedication to improved customer service.
Billing services are another important element of customer service. In Ipswich, Mass., for example, the Ipswich Department of Public Utilities purchased an automated meter reading system capable of reading water and electric meters, which will allow the city to bill more frequently, thus improving cash flow. The system can read meters every 15 minutes and transmit the data via telephone lines into the citys information systems. If customers wanted to profile their usage, we could give them a nice graph every month to show them how much [energy] they used and when they used it, says Tim Henry, director of the Ipswich utility. On the water side, if there are any disputes about a bill, well be able to go right in there and show them that at 2 in the morning youve been using water, which most likely means youve got a leak in your house someplace.
Similarly, Redding, Calif., can show customers 12-month usage records. The city, which offers five utility services electricity, water, wastewater, storm drainage and refuse last year started using a customer information and billing system from Orcom Solutions, Lakewood, Colo.
Were a full service utility, says Rita Vokal, customer service manager for Redding. We needed to be able to track all procedure transactions. There was no way to do all this in the existing billing system.
By automating work and making other upgrades, cities can make noticeable service improvements and save money. In Columbia, Mo., the Columbia Water and Light Department undertook a major upgrade of its IT capability in 1997. The city ran a homegrown system for more than 15 years for utility accounts and billing processes before converting to software from Lake Mary, Fla.-based HTE.
The citys decision to up-grade came down to the comparison of the costs of continuing to do business on the old platform vs. the costs of the new system. We basically had a five-year payout, says Ray Pope, director of information services. The city will be saving money in three years.
Changes equal challenges Customer service and billing systems frequently serve as the impetus for internal improvements, but deregulation plays a significant role in IT upgrades. At the Missouri Basin Municipal Power Agency, which supports 59 municipal utilities in four states, the advent of deregulation is a key concern for IS Director Bill Bauer.
We are looking in the future to connect all 59 members with a wide-area network for faster exchange of data and related information that we need or will need in the future, he explains. Our business strategy, naturally, is to be prepared for deregulation in whatever form that takes.
Utility billing and customer service in a deregulated environment promises to be a challenge for city utilities, as well as for others. Having the right system in place to unbundle charges, bill for multiple services and bill for other companies will be more important when competition becomes a reality. City utilities will need toleverage the Internet and its capabilities, such as online bill payment and other valuable customer communications, in preparing for competition.
Many of the countrys medium-to-large municipal utilities are demonstrating the readiness for deregulation and the willingness to compete in what promises to be a volatile industry. If the electric business went to someone outside the city, we would lose a fairly big tax base, Columbias Pope says. We need to keep the revenue flowing into the city.
Dennis Smith is an Atlanta-based writer.
When Bluffsview Elementary School of Worthington, Ohio, implemented a new solar energy system in March, school officials knew they were gaining a valuable educational tool as well as an energy-saving device. The system has turned into a community-wide project because interested parties can log onto the Internet to view its progress and compare energy use with the system to energy use without it.
The Worthington School District was the first local entity to create a Solar School as part of the U.S. Department of Energys Million Solar Roofs program. Bluffsview is serving as a pilot site to test solar energy as a potential source of power for other buildings in the district. The 2,000-kilowatt system is intended to teach students and the community about energy and energy resources that will be needed in the next century. It also provides 5 percent of the energy needed for the school.
The true benefit of this project comes from the incorporation into our science curriculum, says Greg Viebranz, communications director for the Worthington School District. And the money that would be spent on energy can be redirected to educational needs.
American Electric Power, Columbus, Ohio; the Ohio Department of Development; the Ohio Office of Energy Efficiency; the Columbus-based Foundation for Environmental Education and other partners purchased and installed the $20,000 solar energy system. It is managed by Datapult, an Internet-based program that monitors electricity, gas, water, steam, compressed air, temperature and other information, for online analysis.
It measures the energy produced by the schools solar panels as well as the energy used by the school building. Anyone can track and graph the output by logging on to the website (www.aepes.com/Datapult/bluffsview). Additionally, the energy management system provides data such as consumption profiles, rate analysis and comparison, and usage patterns.
Through energy monitoring and analysis services, users can implement a cost reduction program based on accurate information. Also, the organization that understands its energy consumption requirements and profiles is in a better position to leverage that information for better services and pricing. As users such as the Worthington School District experiment with different types of energy sources, it becomes more important to understand the numbers behind the usage.
Nevada Power Co. (NPC), covering Las Vegas and the surrounding communities, is the fastest-growing electric utility in the United States. With more than 500,000 customers spread over 485 square miles, the investor-owned utilitys revenues are growing at a rate of 6 to 7 percent per year. In order to provide better service to its ever-expanding customer base, the utility has focused its attention on a new outage management system, which also will assist with internal monitoring.
We have not had a lot of complaints from customers, but we know we can do better, says Gary Hale, team leader in central mapping for NPC. Were getting something we never had here before.
The outage management system is based on an automated mapping system similar to a GIS. The system replaces the paper-based processes previously used. Rather than suffer through the high cost and long implementation times typical of traditional GIS projects, NPC chose to use industry-standard, off-the-shelf software wherever possible. By avoiding the costs of customization and extensive training time, the company will spend just $5 million to implement the system. The project will be completed in 24 months.
The cost includes hardware upgrades, software, data conversion and system integration. We didnt have the dollars to do a whole lot right now, Hale says. But the larger goal is to make sure the system is easy to apply to other situations and that its easy to add additional functions or software.
The system will be fully implemented this year and will * significantly improve the outage management process. Call response time will be cut to within a half-hour, and the company will initiate most repairs within minutes rather than the three or four hours it might have taken using paper maps; * reduce the anticipated overtime and new hires required to handle growth; * centralize data and mapping for design, maintenance and planning departments; and * make it possible to share maps and associated data across departments. Creating a centrally located electronic base map was the first step in developing the automated mapping system. Before the project began, the Central Mapping Department worked from 2,500 paper maps, along with one giant base map drawn on the wall of its central mapping room. Design teams used to draw detailed, electronic designs based on work orders, and deliver them to Central Mapping, where they were hand-drawn on the appropriate paper map.
The new system allows different users to pull from the central map only the data and maps they require. Designers changes are incorporated into the central map automatically, and
consistent symbology now is used for all pieces of the shared network. The system operates with Adele, a customized software package based on AutoCAD Map by San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk. JCMB Technology, St. Laurent, Quebec, created the software and is overseeing data conversion and installation on site.
Because of the new system, the utility has dramatically improved its internal response time, as well as its customer response time. Now we can give an estimate of how long the power will be down, Hale says. And, a drawing that used to take four hours to clean up or redraw by hand, now can be done in one hour in a point and click environment.