United Illuminating's online system helps customers understand energy use and make informed usage decisions.
The United Illuminating Co. (UI) has faced a variety of challenges over the last decade. A 1998 restructuring law required the New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.-based electric utility to sell its electricity generating plants. Starting in 2006, electricity prices in the ISO-New England wholesale market began to rise sharply as the price of natural gas increased. Within two years, primarily driven by the increase in wholesale power costs, many of UI's 324,000 customers had seen their electric bills nearly double — at precisely the time when the U.S. economy was shedding jobs and falling into recession. At the same time, customers faced several complex new choices as new rate structures were introduced and competitors entered the generation services market for the first time.
These new laws and regulations brought rapid change for customers but did little to address the rising cost and sticker shock. Electric rates in Connecticut were then, and remain now, among the highest in the nation. As of January 2011, UI residential customers, on average, paid 23.56 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with 12.64 cents in 2000.
Barred by law from building new generation to increase supply, and constrained by its inability to reduce market prices, UI instead chose a strategy of helping customers control their electric bills at the source — their homes and businesses. UI saw that by providing customers with more information, it could help them make smarter choices and manage their energy use and costs. That's why the utility implemented specialized software from Aclara to help customers understand energy use, lower their electric bills, accommodate time-of-day rates and reduce call-center volume. The company deployed the Bill Analysis, Load and Rates Analysis, and Energy Analysis modules of Aclara's ENERGYprism software to accomplish its goals.
Understanding Energy Use
In the bygone era of relatively inexpensive power, customers rarely gave much thought to how and when they used electricity, except when they received their electric bill. Helping them change long-ingrained habits meant providing them with more information and making it available on demand instead of once a month.
Drawing on the data from UI's state-of-the-art metering and customer information systems, UI provides customers and call-center reps with access to detailed daily usage information and analytics through its My Account system, the utility's Aclara-driven customer portal. This software provides helpful tools for customers. UI's dashboard, the initial screen that customers see when they log on, puts all of the most frequently accessed information in one convenient place and provides them with helpful information the moment they log in.
The software also tells consumers how much they owe, why the current bill might be higher or lower than the previous month's, how consumption compares to similar homes and businesses, and what household systems — such as heating, lighting and food storage — contributed to the total payment due. In addition, there is a projected bill estimate of how much energy they've used and its associated cost to date. Finally, it shows an estimate of how much their next final bill might be. By providing this important data, customers can make informed choices about their electricity usage and potentially reduce their energy expenses.
Helping Customers Lower Costs
UI's customers have little control over the many external factors contributing to rising energy costs and the increase in electric rates. However, armed with the proper information, customers can still find ways to lower their bills by reducing usage, improving efficiency, switching to alternate generation suppliers and changing usage behaviors. This approach also can benefit the regional power grid by reducing demand during peak load times.
The software helps customers reduce consumption in a variety of ways. Simply being aware of their electricity costs and usage can encourage customers to make smart choices that save money. Customers also can use the software to create energy profiles by entering information about the specific appliances they own and learning how each one fits into that customer's overall energy consumption picture. For example, a customer might use the system to learn how much money could be saved each month by replacing a 15-year-old refrigerator with a new, energy-efficient unit. Beyond all of the dashboard information, interactive energy-audits and pointers are just a click away.
Accommodating Time-of-Day Rates
For more than 40 years, UI has offered time-of-day rates for residential and commercial customers. Its metering infrastructure, which was deployed 10 years ago, enabled the company to capture and present daily, hourly and 15-minute interval data to customers where applicable on a daily rather than monthly basis. This provides customers with an appropriate price signal that enables them to enjoy a slightly lower base rate but pay slightly more during on peak. The idea is to encourage customers to use appliances or business processes that require a lot of electricity — such as dishwashers, clothes dryers, pool pumps, air conditioners and manufacturing equipment — during off-peak hours, reducing strain on the electric grid. In 2009, state regulators required any residential customer who uses more than 2,000 kWh in a month to be switched to a time-of-day rate.
The portal solution provides helpful tools for customers who are now on, or who recently were switched to, time-based rates. For instance, the My Account dashboard gives customers an easy-to-understand graph showing on- and off-peak usage. In addition, there is a rate calculator to illustrate the impact of transitioning to time-based rates and how their bills might be affected simply by changing behaviors and use patterns. Customers also can request an on-demand meter reading to get real-time access to their meter and data usage.
Reducing Customer Care Center Volume
Not surprisingly, the changes in UI's regulatory environment and energy markets led to confusion among customers. This resulted in additional call volume and extended call times in UI's Customer Care Center. In addition, operating costs increased for the company and oftentimes customers were frustrated due to delays during high-volume periods.
Customers who register with My Account can find answers to many questions instantly, without picking up the phone and calling the Customer Care Center. The applications explain details such as non-energy-related charges, how billing cycles and weather affect total charges, and more.
UI also implemented an Aclara application that gives Customer Care Center representatives the same kind of information customers see online. This makes representatives call advisors who show customers how to use the information we provide to make informed decisions about how to save on energy costs, rather than strictly call takers.
Use of UI's Web portal has increased dramatically. Transactions grew from 243,000 in 2007, to 607,000 in 2008, to 962,000 in 2009. That number surged to nearly 1.3 million transactions in 2010. Some 60,000 people — about 20% of UI's customers — visit the My Account site on a monthly basis.
Planned enhancements to the website include additional reporting capabilities on energy usage. UI also will begin offering customers the chance to sign up for billing alerts that will tell them when they've passed a certain dollar or usage threshold. Plus, the company expects to enhance Aclara's carbon calculator on the site to provide consumers with ways to mitigate the effects of carbon taxes that are expected in the future. Finally, within two years, UI expects to integrate the billing analytics into the bill print process. This will enable customers still receiving paper bills to understand why their energy usage and cost has either decreased or increased.
There are a variety of additional plans UI has on the board that include “smart” technology. By the fourth quarter of 2010, 32,800 new advanced meters were installed at customer locations. These meters provide two-way communication with the power grid, which helps drive efficiencies in asset utilization, voltage monitoring, outage detection and maintaining a high level of power quality. This will help UI accommodate future demands on the electric system, such as electric vehicles.
In addition, the meters are installed with a ZigBee module for a home-area network to provide customers with more real-time information and control within their homes to better manage their energy use. They also could provide a way for the utility to manage distributed generation and better manage the performance of the electrical distribution system.
With energy costs rising in these challenging economic times, many consumers feel they've lost control over their expenses. But at UI, control is the whole point. That's why the companuy enlisted Aclara to offer tools and information that customers can use to manage their energy use and help bring costs under control. Now, with new technologies promising to revolutionize the way consumers consume and pay for energy, UI is positioning itself as its customers' connection to a smarter, thriftier and more sustainable energy future.
Joseph D. Thomas is vice president, Electric System Operations and Client Fulfillment at The United Illuminating Co. Among other things, he oversees the Revenue Cycle Services process, which includes departments that support all aspects of meter and customer field services, including the customer care center, residential and commercial collections, revenue control/special billing, revenue metering system and standard field. He holds a BSEE degree from Bridgeport Engineering Institute and a MBA from University of New Haven.
The United Illuminating Co. www.uinet.com