by Kristen Wright, associate editor
Gathering data from multiple sources and storing it in several places to which one human holds the key is about as passÃ© as licking stamps for paper billing.
Information technology (IT) is making it easy for utilities to get quicker access to better information than they even knew they had. Utilities across the nation already sit on generation, transmission and distribution data gold mines, and the coming smart grid is pushing them to grab that good stuff and store it for accessibility. Smart grid data retrieval must be seamless, secure and snappy.
A Utility Perspective
“We needed a centralized system,” said Catherine Powers, vice president of forecasting and member services at Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) in Glen Allen, Va. “We had an old legacy billing system that we realized needed to be moved into the 21st century.”
It took almost a year to the day–June 1, 2008, to June 1, 2009–for ODEC to evaluate its meter data management (MDM) and billing needs, select a vendor and go live.
Similar stories can be told as many times as there are utilities. ODEC executives realized its problem–that it needed one version of the truth–about two years ago, Powers said.
The generation and transmission cooperative is owned by 11 cooperatives in the PJM power load, and it gets meter data from a variety of sources. Members own and operate some 400,000 meters serving about 1 million member-owners in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Retrieving that data then translating it into something comprehensible were labor-intensive, physical chores, Powers said.
“Historically, I would talk to Tom, and he would go to a file cabinet and add numbers,” she said. “We’ve never really had data available.”
Or was it simply unreachable? Tom Chamberlin works as ODEC’s MDM and billing project lead. The cooperative’s small staff–it hovers around 100 employees–meant one employee’s absence could create numerous potential hold ups.
For example, if Chamberlin were to treat the family to a weeklong vacation, he might be welcomed back by co-workers forming a line at his desk. If he were sick, they could take a number, and if he were to take a long lunch, getting dessert to go might be a good idea.
After Chamberlin had performed his calculations, he’d heave over the results in overwhelming mounds of paper, Powers said.
“There were a variety of different people doing a variety of different functions with that hourly interval data,” she said. “We kind of wanted to get process efficiencies so we weren’t held up because we couldn’t get to a resource.”
ODEC had had enough. It formed a team that selected roughly 10 possible MDM and billing vendors, which were whittled down to five, then three that used actual ODEC data to perform daylong demonstrations, said Anne Spanos, ODEC project manager. After numerous presentations, the team evaluated each vendor and added up scores to determine which would work best for ODEC.
Spanos, Powers and Chamberlin were involved from the beginning of ODEC’s project and attended meetings each day, Chamberlin said.
“We recognized the relationship between meters and how accounts were set up, and billable accounts and those for informational purposes,” he said. “It was understanding the application and helping it evolve from out-of-the-box software. We knew what the expectation was, what it was supposed to do.”
Months were devoted solely to understanding ODEC’s needs. The team rated one vendor tops for its MDM and billing applications, Chamberlin said. It got both jobs.
“When we made the choice with Oracle, they tried to conceptualize our business needs that were different than the off-the-shelf application they had established,” he said.
Putting much of the effort up-front saved money, time and questions when it was time to design and program the systems, Chamberlin said.
“Oracle presented the best solution that was the best fit for us currently and for what would unfold down the road,” he said. “It’s certainly a green solution. We haven’t yet produced the first invoice on paper. It’s all electronically shared.”
It’s a welcome departure from the large, multiple-page invoices ODEC used to print after Chamberlin went to his file cabinet and crunched the numbers. What’s more, the new application does a much better job separating and consolidating information into a form employees easily recognize and understand.
The out-of-the-box, off-the-shelf application enables engineers, for example, to obtain only the engineering-related information they seek. Many ODEC employees can use the easily obtainable, consolidated information, Chamberlin said.
One of the big sellers for the ODEC team was the system’s functionality and ability to manipulate conditions such as rate structures. The team and management liked the idea of having a data “central repository” and the subsequent possibilities so much that the project wasn’t postponed during the economic downturn that sidelined many projects of other U.S. utilities, Chamberlin said.
“It’s a key application, and once we committed to it, the wheels were spinning such that we were designing or anticipating the use of that database to support other functions,” Chamberlin said. “It was not to be pulled because of economic downturns.
“I think we’re all very happy with the product. We can do more things with it. We can present it at a greater detail. You get your feet wet and discover if all the bells and whistles you contemplated are working. So on the happy scale of one to 10, we’re probably nine-point-something.”
After four months of live success, Powers agrees. Adjustments may be made after the billing cycle, and now employees know which version of a bill is most current, she said.
“I am overjoyed–and that’s an understatement–with what I can get with this system,” she said.
ODEC will continue training its employees on the Oracle system twice a year to ensure everyone knows what he or she is doing and that he or she is pulling the right information, Powers said.
A Vendor Perspective
A Canadian, next-generation billing company says the “it” word or phrase of 2010 will be software as a service (SAAS), at least in the utility world. Remember it, because it’s already a big deal in other industries and day-to-day life–people just don’t realize they’re already using it.
“If people are familiar with Yahoo Mail, that’s software as a service,” said Frank Hoogendoorn, Cognera Corp.’s co-founder and executive vice president of business solutions. “You can log on and use that service. For a lot of people, it’s free, but you can pay for an upgrade.”
The SAAS poster child is salesforce.com, he said. It’s the leader in customer relationship management and cloud computing. As with Yahoo Mail, people might have have had SAAS experiences without realizing it.
Customers, according to salesforce.com, include CNN, Starbucks, Siemens, Dell, Hotwire, The Wall Street Journal, Google, Kaiser Permanente and E Trade Financial.
In the utility sector, outsourcing has been a four-letter word with negative connotations, he said.
“On the concept of a hosted solution, utilities tend to be more traditional and conservative, and they’ve been more suspicious,” he said. “We do a lot of education. It doesn’t mean a loss of control or a loss of jobs. It can be more secure.”
A hosted solution such as SAAS enables a redundancy in a backup, Hoogendoorn said. Instead of simply selling sofware licenses, the company makes billing information available online to clients, usually through monthly subscriptions.
“For employees, the Cognera solution keeps jobs at the utilities,” Hoogendoorn said. “We’re not oursourced; we empower the utilities to better serve the clients.”
Utilities capitalize by using their existing systems, and they don’t have to worry about IT infrastructure and paying extra staff, he said.
“For customers, you get the benefit of that service and use of that data to give you a lower energy bill,” he said.
Headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, Cognera provides billing solutions such as CIS/CRM applications, said Chris Lewis, the company’s sales and marketing manager.
“We’re interested in the relationships utilities have with their customers,” Lewis said. “We improve that billing process and eliminate those costly billing errors. We utilize business intelligence tools, which are great for energy conservation and greening.”
Lewis said after a company subscribes to the service, it’s a simple solution.
“You connect into our database with an Internet connection,” he said. “All the utilities’ regular customer service people can see it from their computers.”
Training usally takes a couple of days, with the longest training session running about a week for call center staff.
Among Cognera’s Canadian energy clients are ENMAX Corp. and Nexen Inc.