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Utilities talk customer engagement


This Thursday, Feb. 2, at noon EST, we'll gather three utilities to examine how they engage their customers to communicate the value of their smart grid initiatives. 

The webcast, "From `Ratepayer' to `Customer': Best Practices in Customer Engagement," will include lessons learned from investor-owned Central Vermont Public Service, a municipal utility, Colorado Springs Utilities, and cooperative Flint Energy. 

The themes running through the discussion will likely vary, as IOUs, munis and co-ops have significantly different business models and stakeholders, yet common themes are certain to emerge as well.  

In the case of Central Vermont Public Service, you may have read the piece we ran last fall, "CVPS: Small Utility, Big Mission," which noted the laundry list of grid modernization initiatives undertaken by a utility with 500 employees. CVPS and its plans get scrutinized by both the Vermont Department of Public Service, which represents consumers' concerns, and the Public Service Board, a quasi-judicial body that sets rates. Both regulatory bodies pushed CVPS for total transparency around its multi-year, partly stimulus-funded plans. 

CVPS is moving ahead on advanced metering infrastructure, coupling in-home energy displays with a variety of pricing programs, an advanced outage management system, expanding SCADA systems in substations, a pilot on voltage regulation, automated switching and more. It  has, in conjunction with other Vermont utilities and regulators, devised a pretty friendly (i.e., low cost) opt-out program for smart meter refuse-niks. 

All that called for engaging customers, according to Todd Kowalczyk, program manager for CVPS's smart grid power program, who noted that CVPS has had direct load control and time-of-use programs for decades. 

"When we started these initiatives, we recognized they'd be a game changer," Kowalczyk told me last week. "We recognized that we'd have to talk to our stakeholders about it. Your average person doesn't think about these issues and our utility hasn't been in that role. So we felt we had to listen, then talk." 

While CVPS has not always been as customer-responsive as it is today, it has made the journey to become a full participant in many community programs such as blood drives, coat drives, etc. And when listening and talking, CVPS has used both traditional media and the time-honored face-to-face meeting community stakeholders to understand concerns and determine the best messaging and channels to deliver those messages. 

While this IOU has yet to formally develop customer segmentation, it's well aware of the fundamental handful of motivators among its customer base, which in the future may provide the basis for creating pricing programs. But the utility will look closely at who opts into an upcoming pilot study that combines the use of an in-home display with a new rate, because that may well be a useful core of early adopters who generally present utilities with a beachhead for engaging others. 

Likewise, you may have read the piece we did last year on grid modernization steps at Colorado Springs Utilities, an integrated municipal utility at the base of Pikes Peak, "Smart Grid In Colorado Springs." 

As a muni, when CSU faced the need for rate increases during the recession, it decided instead to aggressively cut costs, consciously living with slower responses to non-essential customer requests, for instance. You'll hear from a representative of CSU on numbers that illustrate just how tight this utility's belt has been cinched. 

Meanwhile, CSU completed an automated meter reading (AMR) system in the 2005-2010 timeframe and today, among other challenges, it is implementing a meter data management system and running a pilot program to see whether it can defer capital investment in expensive infrastructure on one feeder in a newly developed part of town.

Though CSU has no immediate, overall capacity issues, new development has included air conditioning loads that strain certain feeders and substations. That calls for capital upgrades, but to defer that expense, CSU is looking to dynamic pricing and demand response to curtail peak load. The utility also is conducting some direct load control programs which require high touch customer engagement, according to Monica Whiting, CSU's general manager for customer revenue and services. 

We'll hear more about customer engagement in general in this typically conservative, military-oriented city and about almost surgical customer engagement on CSU's Appaloosa circuit in particular. 

Finally, Flint Energies is a co-op serving 17 counties in central Georgia, with 88,000 metered customers across a sprawling service territory that is both urban and rural. We discussed this utility's participation in a cyber security initiative in "Enabling Security for Coops." 

To give you a feel for the sort of engagement Flint Energies has earned, 1,200 to 1,500 members typically show up for the October annual meeting, Anita Moreno, manager of member services, told me. 

To get members to join a pilot project to test in-home devices and pricing options, the co-op is offering 10 packages of smart appliances worth about $10,000 each. Members who participate will be notified if the following day has a peak event and asked to cut usage during that peak. Because co-op members "get" that preventing their utility from making expensive, spot purchases of electricity to handle peaks will actually lower their bills, there's some built-in motivation just based on the co-op business model, Moreno pointed out. 

Flint Energies uses every tool at its disposal to inform its members of issues and opportunities, but certainly a $10,000 package of new appliances should garner the requisite numbers for the upcoming pricing and load management pilot. 

Please join us for this informative and insightful conversation with three utilities with three different business models, all with various grid modernization initiatives and pilots that explore solutions to their individual challenges. 

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily



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