Incremental change adds up
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UNITED ILLUMINATING (UI) IS AN INVESTOR-OWNED UTILITY headquartered in New Haven, Conn. UI serves 325,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in the greater New Haven and Bridgeport areas. As vice president of client fulfillment and electric system operations, Joseph Thomas' responsibilities include all aspects of revenue-cycle services, from metering, billing, collections, call center operations and revenue control to ensuring the safe and efficient construction and operation of the electrical transmission and distribution system. He recently engaged in a Q&A session with Intelligent Utility Daily editor Phil Carson about the utility's grid modernization activities and direction.
INTELLIGENT UTILITY What changes has smart grid wrought within United Illuminating?
THOMAS We don't often use the term "smart grid," we use the term "smart systems." Many utilities have invested in good technologies, but they haven't done a great job at integrating them and transforming the resulting data into information that the utility, the regulators, the suppliers and the customers can utilize.
United Illuminating has worked in a deregulated environment since 1998. Back in 1999-2000, we upgraded our metering infrastructure so we've read all our electric meters at least once a day for 10-plus years. That data doesn't just go to a customer billing system. We integrated the data into multiple business processes. We are providing the data with robust, Web-enabled presentment and analytic tools to all our customers.
We also provided the same data and analytical tools to our customer care center representatives to help them support our customers in both understanding not only how and when they're utilizing their energy but most importantly developing ways to conserve and get the best value out of every energy dollar. In Connecticut we've had residential time-of-day rates for 48 years, commercial time-of-day rates for 33 years. Now we have mandatory, residential time-of-day rates if your use exceeds 2,000 kWh in a month or, for commercial accounts, if you generate 100 kW of demand, based on the highest 15-minute interval during one billing cycle.
So over the past 10 years we've been upgrading and integrating all our technologies, including our metering system, our customer information system (CIS), our mobile workforce solution, our IVR (interactive voice response) and our outage management system. We've automated a lot of our business processes, which reduces operating costs as it streamlines our operations.
Over time, the demands on our system have grown. So we recently upgraded the communications network to a two-way mesh network. We have remote connect/disconnect capabilities for approximately 75,000 meters. Our mobile workforce solution is integrated into our Customer Information System (CIS) and our networked metering system. So our technicians in the field can utilize the wireless network to enable real-time work order processing along with metering system validation and automated data entry.
Our customers via the Web can tap into all kinds of analytics-billing/usage history, daily data, time-of-day rate analysis, when and how they use power along with ways to save through conservation, supplier choice and overall improved account management. The system also calculates a bill to date and estimated month end bill to enable customers to make energy usage changes mid-month if they are going to exceed their budget amounts. In the near future we will provide proactive alerts via the Web, outbound calls and text messaging.
The entire new metering infrastructure is Zigbee-enabled. So we’re piloting home area networks and in-home displays with direct load control capabilities. We’re now upgrading our SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) to better manage the transmission and distribution system, including volt/VAR management, transformer load analysis and enhanced outage detection and restoration. We’ve been evolving all this for the past 10 years. Even our vendors are linked into our computer systems.
Our approach to this was really about partnering with regulators, vendors and customers. Where many utilities have hit roadblocks on their investments, we’ve had nothing but full regulatory support.
INTELLIGENT UTILITY How have you managed to garner “full regulatory support”?
THOMAS You have a lot of dynamics. Connecticut is a high-priced area. A year or two ago, we were among the five highest-priced utilities in the continental U.S. So besides informing customers to help them reduce their costs, we also looked at whether they were reducing their use due to conservation programs, time-of-day rates or picking an alternate supplier. That supported UI and the state’s Department of Public Utility Control, which had the same goals: lower costs, let customers choose, enable them to manage their use through information.
Also, we didn’t go in and say we want to spend $200 million all at once. We didn’t go with the sticker-shock approach. We built foundational systems first. We implemented a fixed metering network. We commissioned a new state-of-the-art CIS. This positioned UI to upgrade systems to meet the ever-changing customer, regulatory and market expectations at a minimal cost. When we installed the mesh network we didn’t have to replace all our meters. Therefore, we were able to build upon a solid technology foundation without having to redeploy new costly systems. That approach, coupled with our practice that everything must have a good business case, meet regulatory demands and customer expectations has resulted in significant benefits over the years for stakeholders. We built core infrastructure and then, over time, started adding components.
INTELLIGENT UTILITY We hear that utilities often succeed in driving customers to a Web portal, but persistence of that behavior is a hurdle. Any advice to encourage “stickiness”?
THOMAS Running your payments processing through the dashboard page helps customers understand their usage and resulting bill. For those who want to pay online, it forces them to go to the site. Some utilities use two different screens. Our Web portal utilization is about 30 percent. When in doubt ask the customer what they would like to see on the Web.
We’ve started looking at in-home displays and load control capabilities, which could bring customers value and enable us to manage the electric system on a more granular basis.
At this point, I think the in-home display may not be the ideal solution. An alternative is to make pricing and billing information conveniently available via cable television or mobile technology where you can see your usage, pay your bill and get billing alerts. The customer sets budget thresholds and gets billing alerts in return. You really want to inform customers long before they get their monthly bill. In December we’ll roll out an option for customers to set thresholds and be notified when they approach or exceed them.
This interview originally appeared in Intelligent Utility Daily. It has been edited for length.