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Baking communication in from the beginning
- Posted on November 29, 2011
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GLENDALE WATER & POWER (GWP), A medium-sized municipal utility based in Glendale, CA, started brainstorming the idea of entering the smart grid around 2007.
By 2009, ideas on paper actually led to the utility starting one of its largest utility projects ever—deploying an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). At the same time, the utility, which provides both electric and water services to its customers, was also implementing a mandatory water conservation ordinance due to the overwhelming water shortage California was experiencing.
Customer focus on two fronts
GWP was now focused on customer education and outreach on both the water and electric side on two completely separate topics—encouraging customers to conserve water and introducing customers to the concept of the smart grid.
As smart grid planning was under way, the utility began meeting with customer groups to discuss the upcoming effects the water shortage would have on the community as well as the utility. At this time, GWP customers were receiving bimonthly bills. One of their main concerns was that they didn’t know what their usage was until they received their bill, so they had no way of knowing whether or not they were conserving.
I decided it was time to start planting the seed that smart meters were the best way for customers to monitor their water usage and to know exactly how much they were using and when, and how it would help them conserve.
A phased approach
As we approached our City Council to obtain approvals for consultants and vendors to start the AMI project, we determined that the project would consist of four phases. The first phase—the AMI and meter data management system (MDMS) phase—included the installation of a citywide Wi-Fi mesh connected at 13 points to the GWP-owned fiber as well as the installation of more than 120,000 electric and water smart meters, which would communicate through two-way radios.
The second phase included customer programs, in- home displays, future pricing plans, thermal storage and demand response. During the third and fourth phases, the utility would focus on distribution automation, including system upgrades to the software supporting distribution automation and hardware upgrades within substations and along distribution feeders.
Launching such a turnkey program with the installation of smart meters required a heavy emphasis on education and customer outreach. Not only was the utility becoming smarter and entering the smart grid, but our job is to make our customers smarter about the new technology, since they are the ones who will be experiencing most of the benefits of this modernized technology.
The utility's success in implementing this project and program hinges on the creation of an effective dialogue with customers in order for them to understand it, and for us to meet their needs and address their concerns while helping them understand and take advantage of the full benefits of the technology.
Identify the stakeholders
GWP's first steps involved identifying all of our different stakeholders and then setting out to talk to each group and inform them of the project. At the same time the utility created a stakeholder management advisory committee comprised of various members of the community representing different stakeholders. This committee met with GWP on a monthly basis to discuss the project, its benefits and how the utility is reaching out to the residents of Glendale.
Stakeholder meetings consisted of town hall meetings, as well as more than 50 presentations made to a variety of stakeholders such as Rotary clubs, realtors' associations, merchants' associations, the school district, hospitals, and large commercial clients.
The utility also followed some of the other investor-owned utility projects and the issues they were having with their customers, in order to ensure we didn't run into similar problems. After being the first utility in the nation to sign the Department of Energy grant to receive $20 million for this project, GWP made the $70 million cost of the project public in all our outreach efforts and reassured customers their rates would not be affected as a result of the smart meter installations. Press releases were also regularly issued to announce grant receipts, installation timelines, project progress and project successes.
Pre-notification in stages
The utility launched the project with a proof-of-concept phase in which we not only tested our installations, meters and system, but also tested our communication outreach materials. We developed an introductory letter that notified customers four weeks out that they would be receiving a smart meter. Included with the letter was a FAQ (frequently asked questions) brochure.
Two weeks out customers received a postcard about their installations as a reminder and door hangers were placed on their doors after a successful installation. Bill inserts also started going out at this time to inform customers of the project, and directed customers to the GWP Web site for more information.
The letter, brochure, bill inserts, and all related smart grid advertising had the same look, same message and remained consistent throughout the entire smart meter installation project. The Web site was updated regularly with FAQs, information on radio frequency, benefits of entering the smart grid and installation schedules.
Community outreach in a public fashion
As the project progressed and the utility was starting to install thousands of meters each day, the local press quickly lost interest in the subject of smart meters. GWP relied on its internal communications team to continue outreach and education. We started attending more community events, where we hosted a booth with information on the meters, had a sample smart meter at the table where customers could see what was going to be installed on their home.
The utility also started advertising "Coffee's in the Park" and inviting residents to a different park each weekend to come out and have coffee with us, where we could address residents' questions and comments. GWP hosted more than 10 of these events and drew about 200 residents. Monthly progress reports to televised GWP Commission and City Council meetings also informed customers on the status of the project.
What were the challenges?
Older, under-recording water meters were replaced with extremely accurate meters, therefore producing higher bills. Customers negatively associated smart meters with higher bills and distrusted the new meters. Addressing this concern was important, as was assuring all customer service representatives knew how to explain this when customers called, in order to help erase this misconception. Customers were also advised that all meters will be manually read at first to provide parallel testing of the automatic reading capability of the system.
Other challenges include the issue of privacy and security. Customer outreach will never end. As more and more negatively focused videos get uploaded to YouTube and the Internet links shared among groups, more and more people can be misinformed about the benefits of the technology instead of how it can assist our customers. As a utility, we have to be ahead of the game and always ready and proactive in responding to these negative claims, as well as addressing customers in a way that will keep them informed and educated.
Working through the challenge in an open fashion
Each utility might have its own set of challenges to work through as its project progresses. How the utility addresses these challenges can weigh heavily on the outcome of the project and can possibly make all of the outreach and education a utility has done up to a certain point disappear or seem like it wasn't enough. Showing customers proof, having real stories and examples to share of successes and challenges and how the utility has worked through them, is good reassurance.
Always having open communication, open dialogue and transparency is important so customers see beyond just the installation of the smart meter. It just takes one misinformed customer to stir the pot. Focus on the following at all times: keeping communications consistent across the board, quickly addressing all customer issues and keeping customers well-informed are the key to launching and maintaining a successful AMI project.
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