Michael T. Burr
Electronic commerce is gaining momentum in the utility business, with almost daily announcements of major companies launching online billing and other e-commerce initiatives.
Utilities have many reasons for moving toward electronic billing and payment (EBP), not the least of which is cost savings. According to a recent study by market research firm Killen & Associates, U.S. utilities could save $1.2 billion in billing costs with EBP.
“The utility industry is among the leaders in electronic billing and payment (EBP),” said Matt Lewis, an executive vice president with EBP service firm CheckFree (www.checkfree.com). “As an industry, it is quickly recognizing the cost-savings associated with EBP as well as a new level of customer interaction only possible now through the Internet.”
CheckFree is working with 16 major U.S. utilities, including Ameren, Avista, AEP, Boston Edison, Columbia Gas of Ohio, Consumers` Energy, FP&L, Hawaiian Electric, Illinois Power, Nevada Power, Northeast Utilities, Northern Illinois Gas, Public Service Company of New Mexico, Portland General Electric, Southern California Edison, the Southern Company and Virginia Power. E-Bill is active for half of these; the others are scheduled to introduce EBP services by the end of the year.
Virginia Power began offering EBP to its 2 million residential and business customers in Virginia and North Carolina in late July. To enroll and begin receiving their bills electronically, Virginia Power customers enter pertinent information into any of several E-Bill web pages, including the utility`s website (www.vapower.com/ebill/); CheckFree`s E-Bill Direct site (www.mybills.com/ebill); a browser imbedded in Intuit`s Quicken 98/99 software; or the website of a participating financial institution, such as Bank One, Charles Schwab, First Union, and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.
Another EBP firm, Princeton eCom Corp. (www.princetonecom.com), announced a deal with Cinergy Corp. to provide EBP services for the utility`s 1.3 million residential customers in Northern Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. Via Cinergy`s website or by telephone, customers will be able to view and pay utility bills, verify payments and request changes in billing information at any time.
The program is being implemented in phases over 24 months, beginning with Cinergy`s Northern Kentucky subsidiary, the Union Light Heat & Power Co., serving some 115,000 customers. EBP is scheduled to become available to customers of Cincinnati Gas & Electric and PSI Energy this fall and in late 2001, respectively.
E-commerce is growing for large industrial and wholesale energy transactions as well. Energy services company DukeSolutions Inc. (www.dukesolutions.com) forged an alliance in early August with Engage Networks Inc. (www.engagenet.com) of Milwaukee, Wis., under which Engage is expected to provide an Internet-based, real-time metering and information management system. The system, dubbed EnfoTrak, is said to be the first to bring comprehensive, Web-based energy information and e-commerce services to large industrial, commercial and institutional customers.
“This alliance puts DukeSolutions at the forefront of e-commerce within energy services, and will be especially powerful in our growing commodity supply business,” said Charles Watkins, DukeSolutions president.
On the wholesale level, Southern California Gas Co. of Los Angeles launched a new version of GasSelect, an automated gas scheduling and energy management system. The e-commerce application is available for the first time through the World Wide Web (www.gasselect.com). Previously customers had to access GasSelect through a proprietary communications network.
The system allows SoCalGas subscribers to access real-time submission of gas nominations, trade gas delivery imbalances in a secondary market, and obtain gas consumption information from remote meters. GasSelect also provides industry news, bulletin boards and email. The system is used to manage the delivery of 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas into Southern California for SoCalGas and San Diego Gas & Electric.
“By moving GasSelect(R) to the Internet we are keeping our commitment to our customers to meet the new emerging energy industry standards, which call for all business transactions to be conducted over the Web,” said Lee Stewart, president of energy transportation services at SoCalGas.