Conference Focuses on Technologies for Customer Satisfaction

Conference Focuses on Technologies for Customer Satisfaction

By Teresa Hansen, Senior Editor

The DistribuTECH(TM) Conference has emerged into the utility industry`s leading symposium on utility automation. The Seventh Annual International Symposium, held in San Diego, Calif., in late January, continued the legacy of previous conferences by setting attendance and exhibitor records. This years conference centered around the theme, “Creating a Competitive, Customer-Driven Utility Company.” The 4,000 attendees were provided with three days of valuable information on current business and technology issues facing today`s distribution utilities.

The 210 exhibitors displayed many of the latest products, services and technologies available to utilities entering the new, competitive marketplace. The conference stressed that customer satisfaction is key to the future utility`s success.

Customers` Expectations

Stephen Baum, Enova Corp.`s (parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and six other subsidiaries) president and CEO, opened the conference by predicting that retail competition will be in full force in the electric utility industry in five years. “Customers` expectations for information are at an all-time high, and this expectation will only increase as electric utilities move into a competitive environment,” Baum said. Baum predicted that in an industry with $207 billion in annual revenue, there will be plenty of players, both old and new, trying to profit in the new deregulated industry. The player having the closest relationship with the customer will be successful, he said. Monopoly customers differ from competitive business customers. Once the industry is completely deregulated, customers will choose energy options and providers, and the successful players will be those that simplify things for the customer. High customer satisfaction in a monopoly doesn`t mean much, Baum said. For example, AT&T had high customer satisfaction ratings when it enjoyed monopoly status. However, once deregulated, it lost approximately one half of its customers to MCI and Sprint. Electric utilities need to be aware that customers may say one thing when buying electricity from a monopoly and yet act very differently when given a choice. “It is a mistake for utilities to be complacent in today`s market,” Baum said.

What Will Happen Next?

George Gantz, Unitil System of Cos.` (the smallest U.S. utility holding company) senior vice president of business development, answered this question. Gantz, the opening session`s second speaker, predicted that electric utilities` revenue will shrink as competition takes hold and the integrated utility will cease to exist. Utilities are facing significant challenges, Gantz said. However, he reassuringly pointed out that utilities should not be too discouraged because opportunities accompany challenges. Utilities that protect and expand their revenue base, invest in flexible and transportable assets and change with technology will be positioned for success, he said. After all, electricity is an essential and personal commodity with high demand. Utilities need to remember, customers want comfort, convenience and control, not a commodity. According to Gantz, the utility that keeps this in mind will be successful.

Information Technology`s Role

Lewis Platt, Hewlett-Packard Co.`s president and CEO, closed the opening session. He began his presentation by listing things utilities must do to be successful in the deregulated market. He said utilities must reduce costs, increase quality, add value and focus on customer satisfaction. Information technology will be instrumental in the effort. “Effective application of information technology will separate winners from losers in years ahead,” Platt said. It is becoming more important for utility suppliers to use open standards, enabling utilities to leverage existing infrastructure. Insightful innovation means building on the standards and technology of someone else by introducing enhancements and new services. Suppliers to the personal computer industry have been doing this for years, Platt said. Platt said he recognized that going from a regulated environment to a competitive environment, seemingly overnight, is difficult. He pointed out that it is possible to thrive in a competitive world. The banking, airline and telecommunications industries all survived and the electric utility industry will too. Platt warned, however, that past success is no guarantee for future success. “Don`t hang on to the old recipe, make a new one,” he said. “The new recipe will probably include information technology.”

“Innie” Awards

This was the second year that Utility Automation organized and hosted the Innovation Awards. Seven companies in the utilities` industry were honored for leading-edge technologies, as well as advanced customer-focused applications development.

The following lists the award winners and categories:

1. Best Marketing Program (Sponsored by Itron): Grundy Electric Cooperative

2. Best Utility Customer Care (Sponsored by Lucent Technologies): Greenville Electric Utility System

3. Best New Product/Technology (Sponsored by Energy Connections): EnergyLine Systems Inc., IntelliTEAM

4. Best Systems Integration Project: Services Industriels de Geneve, ATM Backbone Network

5. Best Distribution Automation Project: United Power Association, UPA Distribution Automation Demonstration Project

6. Best Telecommunications Project: Spanlink Communications, ExtraAgent for Utilities

7. Utility Project of the Year: Kansas City Power & Light Co., Network Meter Reading Project

The winners were judged by a panel of industry experts. Utility Automation recognizes and thanks all those who worked on this year`s awards program.

New U.S. Metering Concept Announced

Schlumberger, one of the world`s largest meter manufacturers, used the conference to introduce pre-payment metering to North America`s utility market. The pre-payment concept was initially realized in Britain in the early 1920s. Over the years, Schlumberger has developed a range of products to address this segment of the electric, gas and water utility markets. Schlumberger operates pre-payment systems in more than 20 countries in various markets facing challenges from deregulation and competition. Systems can be simple one-way (lower cost) to more advanced–solving utility problems with bad-debt write off, high disconnection rates and customer-relation issues. The company also introduced EnergyScan software for power monitoring and real-time analysis at DistribuTECH(TM). Windows-based EnergyScan is an analysis tool for large power users with multiple service connections, such as large industrial plants or small municipal utilities. It allows utility customers to view their total usage from multiple meters at a single glance, define periodic reading cycles to apply special rates or monitor their usage. Schlumberger is the world`s largest supplier of utility meters and systems, offering electric, gas and water utilities and power brokers deregulation solutions, AMR, data acquisition products, information services, systems and technology.

New Alliances Announced at Meeting

The Southern Company and Hewlett-Packard Co. used this year`s conference to announce an agreement that integrates The Southern Company`s EnerLink–an energy-use analysis software–with HP Vantera, a new, open platform for distributed data measurement and control from Hewlett-Packard. The technologies` combination will allow users to gather real-time information of energy use within one or more facilities. The agreement between The Southern Company and Hewlett-Packard is expected to create a new set of options for utilities and their customers. Already, 45 U.S. utilities use EnerLink products and distribute those products to their large industrial and commercial customers. EnerLink features include real-time pricing, rate analysis, energy-use analysis, billing and bill auditing, as well as other applications. Atlanta-based The Southern Company is the parent firm of five electric utilities: Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, Mississippi Power and Savannah Electric. It also markets energy-related services and mobile radio services under The Southern Company name. Hewlett-Packard is a leading global manufacturer of computing, communications and measurement products and services. It employs 112,000 individuals throughout the world.

New Company Exhibits at Conference

Whisper Communications Inc., a recent spin-off from Diablo Research Co. (DRC), announced a series of rollouts and trials in progress utilizing its Whisper fixed-base Ture2Way radio frequency communication architecture. KN Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric, Pacific Enterprises, Brooklyn Union, Portland General and Long Island Lighting Co. are using True2Way in a variety of projects ranging from AMR to advanced value-added services. These regional gas and electric utilities are able to collect and send data from multiple applications over any LAN or WAN. The Whisper technology was developed as a result of a research project partially funded by the Gas Research Institute (GRI). GRI hired DRC in 1993 to survey gas and electric utilities to define a communications network that would meet the evolving needs of AMR and additional requirements. Whisper is currently working with American Meter Co. and Badger Meter Inc. developing additional advanced utility products.

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More than 4,000 attendees had the opportunity to view 210 exhibits at the Seventh International DistribuTECH(TM) Conference held in San Diego, Calif.

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Joyce Collins (second from right), PennWell Conferences and Exhibitions, and Jerry Locsin (far right), Utility Automation, present a plaque to United Power Association, winner of the Best Distribution Automation Demonstration Project, during the “Innie” Awards ceremony.

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In addition to the opening and closing plenary sessions, the 1997 conference offered attendees more than 60 technical sessions.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at

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