Volt VIEWtech Establishes Billing Service Bureau

Volt VIEWtech Establishes Billing Service Bureau

Bob Smock

Volt VIEWtech Inc. is using a customer information management and billing software system from Dynasty Software Inc. to help small municipal governments not only provide power to their residents, but to distinguish their power with innovative services that are equal to or better than large, investor-owned utilities.

“The deregulation of the electric industry has enabled a non-traditional and simpler approach for small municipalities to enter the energy market, with better service being the key to capturing business,” said Jim McLain, Volt VIEWtech president.

“Cities have unique opportunities to package energy services that surpass traditional utility/customer dynamics to address people`s concerns as resident, constituents and dependents of city government,” McLain said. “Benefiting their local customers, cities can leverage these opportunities to improve their economic development efforts and provide energy services focused on specific socio-economic, geographic and commercial conditions within their city limits.”

Volt VIEWtech has established a Billing Service Bureau catering to these municipalities. “Outsourced energy-related services has been our core business for more than 20 years, and we saw a tremendous marketing opportunity to package our innovative finance, information and customer services with billing services,” McLain said. “Our main task was to find the right billing software that could integrate our products and services, and provide a flexible and comprehensive service platform.” Based on this criteria, Volt VIEWtech selected the UTILITY/2000 program from Laguna Hills, Calif.-based Dynasty Software.

Automating Meter Reading for Billing Purposes

The UTILITY/2000 capabilities originate from the system`s ability to automatically read service meters. There is no limit to the number of meters per site or per consumer that can be tracked, and the program can read a wide variety of meters, including single dial, compound dials, master-sub, reduction and demand.

Once the data is gathered, the ability to incorporate it into specialized bills is a key feature. “The software allows us great flexibility in specifying the program`s basic invoice template so that we can keep up with volatile billing requirements and develop informative billing formats,” McLain said.

Among the features incorporated into Volt VIEWtech`s service platform are graphics illustrating the consumer`s energy usage. This customized information can be shown as requested by the individual consumer and is available through the Internet.

“Billing Star-Compliant”

The software is also helping Volt VIEWtech`s service bureau comply with the Environmental Protection Agency`s (EPA) “Billing Star” provisions, which are designed to encourage utilities to provide informative bills, so that consumers can use power more efficiently. The Volt VIEWtech service bureau is using the software with its HomeVIEW to not only compile information of power usage by consumer, but by premise as well–the actual house or building structure. By doing this, customers that are new to a home may know the power consumption history of the residence, as well as its energy characteristics and how it compares to similar homes in the area.

Invoicing Issues

UTILITY/2000 can generate pre-defined billing statements, including “Bill,” “Reminder Notice” and “Past Due Notice,” with user-defined penalty percentages or amounts, payment penalty and reconnection charge. The software facilitates fast access to customer records via a powerful search engine, allowing service bureau employees to find an individual by account number, name, street address, meter number and other parameters.

“Major customer information functions are neatly arranged on a single screen by `tabbed folders,` so that with a click of the mouse our people can quickly and easily find the information they need,” McLain said. “This information can include collection activity, credit history, history of bill detail, history of meter usage and last bill image.” Volt VIEWtech also produces a wide selection of predefined reports, all of which are grouped within the functional areas to which they belong (customer address, credit history, history of bill detail, etc.) and easily accessed with the built-in Access Report Writer.

Additional Opportunity for Municipalities

While deregulation has opened opportunities to supply energy, servicing energy sales may prove more beneficial to cities evolving their roles as localized information providers and energy-related economic developers. “For instance, cities may be able to `grab` the energy information infrastructure through implementation of AMR and billing independent of energy supply, supporting their role as an information provider while maintaining choice of energy for their residents,” McLain said.

“Our alliance with eT Communications, and the compatibility of their telephone-based communications gateway with Dynasty`s software, can serve these opportunities under an outsourced arrangement which shifts the decision-crippling technology risk to us and leverages the tax exempt financing benefits which accrue to the city,” McLain said. “Further, pending state decisions, cities may be able to `grab` public funds for local administration, much like municipal utilities, if their state views these funds as another form of localized economic development.”

UTILITY/2000 Remains the Backbone

“Most of the data management capabilities of Dynasty Software`s program pertain to billing, but what really distinguishes it is its ability to support useful customer information,” McLain said. “We don`t want to be `electron counters` limited to last month`s consumption. We want to be much more informative and helpful by providing seasonal reports, calculated energy savings when customers contemplate energy efficient improvements and financial services to simplify the process of home improvement. With UTILITY/2000 as the backbone of our service platform, we can enable municipalities to function as full service utilities.”

Dynasty Software Inc.–Inquire R.S. 140

Control Center Integrates Energy Trading, Distribution and Control

By Steve Underwood, CILCO

Over the past decade, the forces set into motion by deregulation and heightened environmental sensitivity have changed the face of the industry. Today, utilities must meet the challenge of increased competition in a rapidly evolving regulatory environment.

In partnership with their vendors, utilities are integrating the latest in instrumentation and communications technology to achieve maximum efficiency and reliability at every stage of their operations. Central Illinois Light Co. (CILCO), with its established generation facilities, had already achieved the first part of the equation: economical power production. The company`s next step was clear–optimize control and distribution.

Sound Economic Sense

CILCO`s decision made sound economic and operational sense. CILCO, a subsidiary of CILCORP Inc., generates, transmits, distributes and sells electricity and buys, distributes and sells natural gas throughout central and east central Illinois. By replacing outdated technology with centralized, state-of-the-art distribution and control, CILCO would maintain and increase its competitive edge. Most important, its customers would be able to count on dependable, cost-efficient service for decades to come.

In early 1997, CILCO engineers initiated the search for an effective and complete energy management solution. CILCO`s requirements were comprehensive. The new control center must efficiently centralize electrical and natural gas operations. It must reliably and economically provide natural gas and electrical services over a service area that encompasses a quarter million customers in 150 communities over 4,500 square miles.

Demanding Requirements

When pre-qualification documents arrived in Houston around mid-April 1997, Leon Williamson, Valmet senior applications engineer, recognized the challenge. “To provide efficient energy trading and operations control, the solution we designed had to have the speed, flexibility and precision to support combined gas and electric management. The resulting system would have to be all encompassing: energy trading, contract management and transmission access as well as transmission and distribution control.” Williamson`s team swung into action to devise a cost- and performance-effective solution.

The Valmet teams, made up of the Sage Systems division, Calgary engineers and the Houston division, worked closely together to produce a solution that would seamlessly integrate and control electrical and gas distribution out of a single control center. SAGE Systems division had its beginnings in the oil and gas industry. Calgary`s engineers, who prepared the oil and gas portion of the bid, have a thorough familiarity with the special needs of natural gas transmission and distribution. Houston division, whose engineers worked on designating hardware and customized software for the SCADA/EMS systems, brought in-depth electrical applications expertise to the table, including energy and load management and distribution control. Joe Steur led the Houston sales team, which included Leon Williamson, Keith Skelton and Keith Dove.

Flexible, Open Architecture

CILCO awarded the contract to Valmet in October 1997. Built on an OASyS V6.0 platform in a dual-redundant, client-server environment, the system`s inherent scalability provides for both present and future needs. SCADA data are fed into and out of the central control station via TCP/IP LAN. OASyS` open architecture effortlessly accommodates all of the major vendors` workstations while seamlessly integrating pipeline and substation operations utilizing Windows NT 4.0-based MMI`s.

OASyS provides in-depth functionality and seamless integration of real-time energy trading, contract and transaction management, transmission access, electric transmission and distribution control and gas distribution control. The hardware consists of UNIX-based servers hosting the CMX real-time database and XIS control, archiving and historical trending. A Xyplex terminal server feeds alarms and events via RS-232 to the LAN. The CILCO system monitors and controls the electrical grid and the operation of 145 substations. Pipeline functions include monitoring, metering and flow control, customer usage, gas storage and load forecasting and gas supply scheduling.

Turnkey Support

The CILCO contract is already well under way. Hardware is already in place, and CILCO personnel have just completed training in Houston. Depending on the individual, Valmet provided from two days to three and a half weeks of intensive training. CILCO anticipates cutover will occur around April of next year. Valmet is providing full installation and operational assistance for the CILCO system, backed by extensive maintenance and preventative maintenance programs.

A Tradition of Reliability

Intensive service and support both before and after the sale has always been important to Valmet. Williamson believes this focus on customer satisfaction was a significant factor in gaining this major contract. He explained, “CILCO had been buying our RTUs for some time now, so they were familiar with how our company operates. We built a tradition of reliability that opened doors for us. CILCO had been happy with our product and became familiar with our attitude to service. Now they were ready to talk about systems.” Valmet was able to provide the capability of implementing a combined electric and gas EMS system. This capability enabled CILCO to meet its strategic objectives while saving resources required to implement the new system.

Valmet–Inquire R.S. 141

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The CILCO Control Center monitors and controls the electrical grid, power plants and the operation of 145 substations.

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