Putting the customers first, always
- Posted on September 20, 2011
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TO GAUGE HOW FAR A COMPANY HAS COME, IT IS IMPORTANT to look at its beginnings.
For JEA (formerly the Jacksonville Electric Authority), those beginnings hail back to 1895, when the city of Jacksonville, Florida, established an electric system. On March 7 of that year, the switch was thrown at the original Main Street Power Plant, providing nighttime-only service for lighting.
By 1932, the utility was already receiving kudos for its service, this time earning national recognition from the New York World Telegram and 25 other Scripps-Howard newspapers for the success of its electric plant during the Depression. While this may be the first national-level laurel the community-owned utility received, it's hardly the last.
Today, JEA has grown into a consolidated electric, water and sewer utility with more than $1.8 billion in annual revenue. Florida's largest municipally owned electric utility, and the eighth largest municipal utility in the United States, JEA serves more than 417 electric customers in Jacksonville, and parts of three adjacent counties. JEA's water system serves more than 305,000 water customers and 230,000 sewer customers in Northeast Florida.
On the electric side of the house, approximately 42 percent of JEA's electric revenues come from 368,000 residential customers, 45 percent from 46,000 commercial and industrial customers, and 3 percent from one wholesale customer. The commercial and industrial market segment also accounts for about one-third of the water and wastewater revenue.
It's a far cry from the utility's early electric customer base, which had risen by 1938 to 30,000 residential accounts, 6,500 commercial accounts and 110 industrial accounts.
JEA hasn't only had wars and the Great Depression to deal with over the years of its service, it also faces yearly challenges from Mother Nature with which it must contend. And sometimes, those natural challenges can be devastating.
The most destructive blow to JEA came on September 9, 1964, when Hurricane Dora destroyed almost 95 percent of Jacksonville's electric transmission and distribution systems, causing the utility to have to rebuild nearly from scratch. And yet it bounced back, as it always has. By the end of 1966, it had even grown to become the second-largest municipally owned utility in the United States.
JEA has never been one to sit back on its laurels and coast. Instead, especially in recent decades, the utility has built a history of looking at different ways of adding to its customers' options, and decreasing its customers' costs.
For example, while JEA's electric rates were among the highest in the nation in the 1970s, under the leadership of a new managing director, Royce Lyles, hired in 1979, the utility began diversifying its fuel mix, dropping its rates as it did so, to the point where JEA's electric rates became the lowest in the state of Florida, and near the bottom of all rates across the Southeast.
Lyles' replacement, upon his retirement in 1995, was Walt Bussells, who wasted little time continuing to move the utility forward by embracing new technology. By 2002, JEA had introduced online bill payment. Almost 10 years ago, the utility also embarked upon its first automated meter reading (AMR) deployment, long before the term "smart grid" came into existence.
All of JEA's 740,000 meters are now on the AMR network today, with both electric and water meters being read daily, remotely and without any manual intervention.
Transmision and distribution are high on JEA's list of early innovative concepts, as well. In 1974-1975, JEA became one of the first electric utilities in the U.S. to establish a computerized distribution control center to make power transmission more efficient. (The utility now has more then 6,000 miles of distribution and 730 miles of transmission lines.) And in 1982, the second of two 500 kV transmission lines was completed to allow the utility to increase its purchase of power from utilities outside the state, a concept then known as "coal-by-wire.
In 2003, JEA began providing chilled water for air conditioning in downtown buildings. Its first two customers were the downtown library and the U.S. Courthouse, for whom the provision of chilled water eliminated the need for costly (and space-intensive) chillers and cooling towers on site.
The utility also launched a solar incentive program in 2002, and installed 35 solar photovoltaic arrays around Jacksonville, including all of its high schools. By 2005, JEA was already earning early acknowledgements for its efforts, including a Sierra Club Celebration of Energy Independence Award for its voluntary commitment to increasing the use of solar, wind and other green power sources and promoting energy and water conservation.