Information Age: How customer interactions with electric utilities will change

By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

Some electric utilities are bracing for as much as a tenfold increase in call-center volume, and that frenzy won’t be related to the usual call generators: high bills and estimated meter reads. Multiple speakers made this prediction at a recent conference for utility professionals. Advanced metering, home automation, energy-education devices, and new electricity pricing schemes will change how utilities interact with customers.

From complaints to conservation
David O’Brien, president and CEO of Toronto Hydro, was one of the executives expecting call-center volume to rise. In response, his utility is constructing new Internet tools designed to get customers off the phone and onto the web.

One such tool is “bot” technology. Also known as web robots, bots can quickly access information and deliver personalized messages to site visitors. At Toronto Hydro, the bot is a female character that pops on screen as a customer enters his account page. In the scenario O’Brien presented, the bot can begin a conversational accounting of the customer’s previous day’s usage and how a few changes in behavior would have saved money on time-based rates.

There are 106 languages spoken in the Toronto public schools, O’Brien noted. Bot technology will allow the utility to deliver conservation pointers in all of them.

Service extras
For utilities putting in advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) with fixed networks that stay connected to customers, in-home displays are hot market additions. One such in-home display device from Tendril Networks shows consumption and cost information, as well as estimated monthly bills and utility-sent messages. Users can program the devices to respond to pricing changes from the utility. For example, if the customer is on a “critical-peak rate” — one that hikes up the cost of electricity during capacity-constrained hours — the device might sound an alert or communicate directly to another household device, such as a thermostat. Then, the thermostat might raise the household temperature to reduce air-conditioner load and the consumer’s electric bill.

According to Tendril vice president Tony Bamonti, such technology is about to start reaching consumer homes in large numbers. His company is working with a utility that, starting in July, plans to install as many as 3,000 units each week as part of an AMI installation. By the end of 2008, that utility hopes to have some 75,000 in-home displays in customers’ hands.

Tendril also offers “smart outlets” that plug into regular electrical outlets, and then appliances plug into them. With smart outlets, customers can measure the usage and cost of their refrigerators or plasma TVs. Or, consumers could program the outlet to turn appliances off when electricity prices are high. After all, it’s a smart outlet, and it can communicate with advanced electricity meters or in-home displays.

Keeping home fires burning … or not
Fred Kiko is president of Simply Automated, another company providing networked sockets and switches. He jokes that you could plug a “parental-control power strip” into one of these units and enforce bedtime by turning off the computer and TV in a child’s bedroom at 9 p.m. That certainly lends new muscle to the “lights out” order.

Ken Boehme, Simply Automated’s quality engineer, is already using the technology to keep the lights off in his house. “When teens wander in late, they have a tendency to turn things on and leave them on.” So, he uses home automation to turn things off at 1 a.m. and again at 2 a.m. “just in case.”

Smart sockets and intelligent circuit breakers allow for both control and monitoring of appliances. For instance, the devices could send data to an electric utility or some service provider who, through sophisticated diagnostics, analyzes an air conditioner’s load profile to determine when HVAC maintenance is needed. The service provider or utility could even notify the HVAC technician to come service the unit. Kiko says he’d install such devices if he were an HVAC technician. “They’d work better than a fridge magnet,” he quips.

Though handy, devices like these are sure to generate consumer questions. And, if utilities start offering such products in the same numbers some energy providers pass out compact fluorescent lights, utilities may be fielding quite a lot of them. The call center of the future may be more focused on helping consumers save energy than explaining why a bill is so high. Still, wouldn’t you rather talk to a customer with “green” concerns than one who called in to complain?

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 15 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.

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