By Stephen Doroff, LODESTAR Corp.
Deregulation is breaking up the old economy monopolies into a network of companies whose new business models require new systems and communication. Utility companies are feeling an added level of accountability as they must work together with energy service providers to share information about who their customers are as well as metering, consumption and billing information-down to the day and even the minute.
As a result, utility companies are looking to implement new customer billing systems that streamline communication for sharing customer information within the organization and across the utility industry. Energy service providers need a modern system that is flexible, easy to install, and can be readily configured to meet the industry’s new requirements, which can include unbundled and bundled, rate-ready and bill-ready, consolidated and dual billing, and a myriad of competitive pricing from simple to complex. In order to gain a competitive edge, energy providers must implement an adaptable and scalable billing system that will change as the customer’s needs change in the rapidly evolving energy market, and to the needs of different marketplaces.
It is important that customer billing systems in today’s new energy economy provide the following benefits:
- They’re seamless. A billing system must integrate seamlessly with any existing software components the energy service provider might have, such as customer relationship management (CRM) financial or middleware components. Seamless integration with interacting components enables the energy provider to consecutively support multiple business models and facilitate communication with distribution, generation, ISOs and transmission companies, customers and other suppliers.
- They’re flexible. Energy service providers will benefit from flexible customer billing systems that configure pricing, billing and settlement functions without the need for application changes. A flexible billing system automates business processes, such as setting up for a new market or changing rules based on new business requirements, and allows energy service providers to update critical customer information in real time. A solution specifically engineered to easily adjust to different billing plans, utility rates and business rule variations for each jurisdiction operating in the deregulated economy is also important. This enables utilities to reconfigure their software easily and quickly, without the need for IT support each time new legislation is passed or the pricing department comes up with a new pricing scheme.
- They’re user friendly. It is important that energy service providers implement a user friendly system that empowers the end user. A user-friendly system enables non-programmers to modify billing plans in plain English rather than in complicated computer programming language. In order to ease the implementation process, the billing system should be automated with a one-time effort. The installation of such a solution unlocks vital customer data without manual intervention. For instance, each time the user approves an invoice, the customer data is automatically added to a customer data repository. The customer’s accounts receivable is updated as well as other components. A user-friendly customer billing system also is apable of billing scalar and interval usage so that energy service providers can store and manage different times series data, ranging from 60-second to hourly to virtually any time interval. This enables the utility to offer the most competitive prices available. Finally, a user-friendly billing engine provides a checklist capability to ensure all information is available before billing takes place.
- They’re efficient. In the new energy economy, an efficient customer billing system is needed so that customer data is always in sync and easily accessible to all stakeholders. For instance, a billing system that focuses around a centralized repository serves as a single data source for all customer information. This repository would power the utility’s entire customer information system solution and act as the engine for all applications. A central repository provides consistent data to all the key audiences in the organization, including load researchers, load profilers, revenue processors, billing experts marketing executives, rate designers and more. An efficient billing system must be able to handle high volumes through billing many accounts simultaneously on a single server. It also is important that the billing system ensures the accuracy of billing information with validity at the rate structure account or meter level.
Today’s new energy economy is requiring energy service providers to reinvent how they work. Utilities must implement new customer billing systems that facilitate communication within the company and across the industry. When selecting a new customer billing system, energy providers must look for a solution that takes into account the new business challenges posed by deregulation. An effective customer billing system customizes to fit the needs of the individual provider and easily adapts as the provider’s needs change in the rapidly evolving, deregulated industry.
Stephen Doroff (steve_doroff@lodestar corp.com) is the senior vice president of strategic product initiatives for the LODESTAR Corp. Approximately 20 percent of all energy flowing in the U.S. is currently billed and tracked by LODESTAR. For more information about LODESTAR, visit www.lodestarcorp.com.