The Power of Prediction: Improving the Odds of a Nuclear Renaissance

After 30 years of disfavor in the United States, the nuclear power industry is poised for resurgence. With the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the specter of over $100 per barrel oil prices and the public recognition that global warming is real, nuclear power is now considered one of the most practical ways to clean up the power grid and help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil. The industry has responded with a resolve to build a new fleet of nuclear plants in anticipation of what has been referred to as a nuclear renaissance.

The nuclear power industry is characterized by a remarkable level of physics and mechanical science. Yet, given the confluence of a number of problematic issues – an aging workforce, the shortage of skilled trades, the limited availability of equipment and parts, and a history of late, over-budget projects – questions arise about whether the level of management science the industry plans to use is sufficient to navigate the challenges ahead.

According to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), nuclear power comprises 20 percent of the U.S. capacity, producing approximately 106 gigawatts (GW), with 66 plants that house 104 reactor units. To date, more than 30 new reactors have been proposed, which will produce a net increase of approximately 19 GW of nuclear capacity through 2030. Considering the growth of energy demand, this increased capacity will barely keep pace with increasing base load requirements.

According to Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon, we will need approximately 45 new reactors online by 2030 just to maintain 20 percent share of U.S. electricity generation nuclear power already holds.

Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley vice chairman Jeffrey Holzschuh is very positive about the next generation of nuclear power but warns that the industry’s future is ultimately a question of economics. “Given the history, the markets will be cautious,” he says.

As shown in Figures 1-3, nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of generation, but its upfront capital costs are comparatively high. Historically, long construction periods have led to serious cost volatility. The viability of the nuclear power industry ultimately depends on its ability to demonstrate that plants can be built economically and reliably. Holzschuh predicts, “The first few projects will be under a lot of public scrutiny, but if they are approved, they will get funded. The next generation of nuclear power will likely be three to five plants or 30, nothing in between.”

Due to its cohesive identity, the nuclear industry is viewed by the public and investors as a single entity, making the fate of industry operators – for better or for worse – a shared destiny. For that reason, it’s widely believed that if these first projects suffer the same sorts of significant cost over-runs and delays experienced in the past, the projected renaissance for the industry will quickly revert to a return to the dark ages.

THE PLAYERS

Utility companies, regulatory authorities, reactor manufacturers, design and construction vendors, financiers and advocacy groups all have critical roles to play in creating a viable future for the nuclear power industry – one that will begin with the successful completion of the first few plants in the United States. By all accounts, an impressive foundation has been laid, beginning with an array of government incentives (as loan guarantees and tax credits) and simplified regulation to help jump-start the industry.

Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy has the authority to issue $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear plants and $2 billion for uranium enrichment projects. In addition, there’s standby support for indemnification against Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and litigation-oriented delays for the first six advanced nuclear reactors. The Treasury Department has issued guidelines for an allocation and approval process for production tax credits for advanced nuclear: 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour production tax credit for the first eight years of operation with the final rules to be issued in fiscal year 2008.

The 20-year renewal of the Price- Andersen Act in 2005 and anticipated future restrictions on carbon emissions further improve the comparative attractiveness of nuclear power. To be eligible for the 2005 production tax credits, a license application must be tendered to the NRC by the end of 2008 with construction beginning before 2014 and the plant placed in service before 2021.

The NRC has formulated an Office of New Reactors (NRO), and David Matthews, director of the Division of New Reactor Licensing, led the development of the latest revision of a new licensing process that’s designed to be more predictable by encouraging the standardization of plant designs, resolving safety and environmental issues and providing for public participation before construction begins. With a fully staffed workforce and a commitment to “enable the safe, secure and environmentally responsible use of nuclear power in meeting the nation’s future energy needs,” Matthews is determined to ensure that the NRC is not a risk factor that contributes to the uncertainty of projects but rather an organizing force that will create predictability. Matthews declares, “This isn’t your father’s NRC.”

This simplified licensing process consists of the following elements:

  • An early site permit (ESP) for locations of potential facilities.
  • Design certification (DC) for the reactor design to be used.
  • Combined operating license (COL) for the certified reactor as designed to be located on the site. The COL contains the inspections, tests, analyses and acceptance criteria (ITAAC) to demonstrate that the plant was built to the approved specifications.

According to Matthews, the best-case scenario for the time period between when a COL is docketed to the time the license process is complete is 33 months, with an additional 12 months for public hearings. When asked if anything could be done to speed this process, Matthews reported that every delay he’s seen thus far has been attributable to a cause beyond the NRC’s control. Most often, it’s the applicant that’s having a hard time meeting the schedule. Recently, approved schedules are several months longer than the best-case estimate.

The manufacturers of nuclear reactors have stepped up to the plate to achieve standard design certification for their nuclear reactors; four are approved, and three are in progress.

Utility companies are taking innovative approaches to support the NRC’s standardization principles, which directly impact costs. (Current conventional wisdom puts the price of a new reactor at between $4 billion and $5.5 billion, with some estimates of fully loaded costs as high as $7 billion.) Consortiums have been formed to support cross-company standardization around a particular reactor design. NuStart and UniStar are multi-company consortiums collaborating on the development of their COLs.

Leader of PPL Corp.’s nuclear power strategy Bryce Shriver – who recently announced PPL had selected UniStar to build its next nuclear facility – is impressed with the level of standardization UniStar is employing for its plants. From the specifics of the reactor design to the carpet color, UniStar – with four plants on the drawing board – intends to make each plant as identical as possible.

Reactor designers and construction companies are adding to the standardization with turnkey approaches, formulating new construction methods that include modular techniques; sophisticated scheduling and configuration management software; automated data; project management and document control; and designs that are substantially complete before construction begins. Contractors are taking seriously the lessons learned from plants built outside the United States, and they hope to leverage what they have learned in the first few U.S. projects.

The stewards of the existing nuclear fleet also see themselves as part of the future energy solution. They know that continued safe, high-performance operation of current plants is key to maintaining public and state regulator confidence. Most of the scheduled plants are to be co-located with existing nuclear facilities.

Financing nuclear plant construction involves equity investors, utility boards of directors, debt financiers and (ultimately) the ratepayers represented by state regulatory commissions. Despite the size of these deals, the financial community has indicated that debt financing for new nuclear construction will be available. The bigger issue lies with the investors. The more equity-oriented the risk (principally borne by utilities and ratepayers), the more caution there is about the structure of these deals. The debt financiers are relying on the utilities and the consortiums to do the necessary due diligence and put up the equity. There’s no doubt that the federal loan guarantees and subsidies are an absolute necessity, but this form of support is largely driven by the perceived risk of the first projects. Once the capability to build plants in a predictable way (in terms of time, cost, output and so on) has been demonstrated, market forces are expected to be very efficient at allocating capital to these kinds
of projects.

The final key to the realization of a nuclear renaissance is the public. Americans have become increasingly concerned about fossil fuels, carbon emissions and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. The surge in oil prices has focused attention on energy costs and national security. Coal-based energy production is seen as an environmental issue. Although the United States has plenty of access to coal, dealing with carbon emissions using clean coal technology involves sequestering it and pumping it underground. PPL chairman Jim Miller describes the next challenge for clean coal as NUMBY – the “Not under my back yard” attitude the public is likely to adopt if forced to consider carbon pumped under their communities. Alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal enjoy public support, but they are not yet scalable for the challenge of cleaning up the grid. In general, the public wants clean, safe, reliable, inexpensive power.

THE RISKS

Will nuclear fill that bill and look attractive compared with the alternatives? Although progress has been made and the stage is set, critical issues remain, and they could become problematic. While the industry clearly sees and is actively managing some of these issues, there are others the industry sees but is not as certain about how to manage – and still others that are so much a part of the fabric of the industry that they go unrecognized. Any one of these issues could slow progress; the fact that there are several that could hit simultaneously multiplies the risk exponentially.

The three widely accepted risk factors for the next phase of nuclear power development are the variability of the cost of uranium, the availability of quality equipment for construction and the availability of well-trained labor. Not surprising for an industry that’s been relatively sleepy for several decades, the pipeline for production resources is weak – a problem compounded by the well-understood coming wave of retirements in the utility workforce and the general shortage of skilled trades needed to work on infrastructure projects. Combine these constraints with a surge in worldwide demand for power plants, and it’s easy to understand why the industry is actively pursuing strategies to secure materials and train labor.

The reactor designers, manufacturers and construction companies that would execute these projects display great confidence. They’re keen on the “turnkey solution” as a way to reduce the risk of multiple vendors pointing fingers when things go wrong. Yet these are the same firms that have been openly criticized for change orders and cost overruns. Christopher Crane, chief operating officer of the utility Exelon Corp., warned contractors in a recent industry meeting that the utilities would “not take all the risk this time around.” When faced with complicated infrastructure development in the past, vendors have often pointed to their expertise with complex projects. Is the development of more sophisticated scheduling and configuration management capability, along with the assignment of vendor accountability, enough to handle the complexity issue? The industry is aware of this limitation but does not as yet have strong management techniques for handling it effectively.

Early indications from regulators are that the COLs submitted to date are not meeting the NRC’s guidance and expectations in all regards, possibly a result of the applicants’ rush to make the 2008 year-end deadline for the incentives set forth in the Energy Policy Act. This could extend the licensing process and strain the resources of the NRC. In addition, the requirements of the NRC principally deal with public safety and environmental concerns. There are myriad other design requirements entailed in making a plant operate profitably.

The bigger risk is that the core strength of the industry – its ability to make significant incremental improvements – could also serve as the seed of its failure as it faces this next challenge. Investors, state regulators and the public are not likely to excuse serious cost overruns and time delays as they may have in the past. Utility executives are clear that nuclear is good to the extent that it’s economical. When asked what single concern they find most troubling, they often reply, “That we don’t know what we don’t know.”

What we do know is that there are no methods currently in place for beginning successful development of this next generation of nuclear power plants, and that the industry’s core management skill set may not be sufficient to build a process that differs from a “learn as you go” approach. Thus, it’s critical that the first few plants succeed – not just for their investors but for the entire industry.

THE OPPORTUNITY – KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

The vendors supporting the nuclear power industry represent some of the most prestigious engineering and equipment design and manufacturing firms in the world: Bechtel, Fluor, GE, Westinghouse, Areva and Hitachi. Despite this, the industry is not known for having a strong foundation in managing innovation. In a world that possesses complex physical capital and myriad intangible human assets, political forces and public opinion as well as technology are all required to get a plant to the point of producing power. Thus, more advanced management science could represent the missing piece of the puzzle for the nuclear power industry.

An advanced, decision-making framework can help utilities manage unpredictable events, increasing their ability to handle the planning and anticipated disruptions that often beset long, complex projects. By using advanced management science, the nuclear industry can take what it knows and create a learning environment to fi nd out more about what it doesn’t know, improving its odds for success.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure: The Case for Transformation

Although the most basic operational benefits of an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) initiative can be achieved by simply implementing standard technological features and revamping existing processes, this approach fails to leverage the full potential of AMI to redefine the customer experience and transform the utility operating model. In addition to the obvious operational benefits – including a significant reduction in field personnel and a decrease in peak load on the system – AMI solutions have the potential to achieve broader strategic, environmental and regulatory benefits by redefining the utility-customer relationship. To capture these broader benefits, however, utilities must view AMI as a transformation initiative, not simply a technology implementation project. Utilities must couple their AMI implementations with a broader operational overhaul and take a structured approach to applying the operating capabilities required to take advantage of AMI’s vast opportunities. One key step in this structured approach to transformation is enterprise-wide business process design.

WHY “AS IS” PROCESSES WON’T WORK FOR AMI

Due to the antiquated and fragmented nature of utility processes and systems, adapting “as is” processes alone will not be sufficient to realize the full range of AMI benefits. Multiple decades of industry consolidation have resulted in utilities with diverse business processes reflecting multiple legacy company operating practices. Associated with these diverse business processes is a redundant set of largely homegrown applications resulting in operational inefficiencies that may impact customer service and reliability, and prevent utilities from adapting to new strategic initiatives (such as AMI) as they emerge.

For example, in the as-is environment, utilities are often slow to react to changes in customer preferences and require multiple functional areas to respond to a simple customer request. A request by a customer to enroll in a new program, for example, will involve at least three organizations within the utility: the call center initially handles the customer request; the field services group manages changing or reprogramming the customer’s meter to support the new program; and the billing group processes the request to ensure that the customer is correctly enrolled in the program and is billed accordingly. In most cases, a simple request like this can result in long delays to the customer due to disjointed processes with multiple hand-off points.

WHY USE AMI AS THE CATALYST FOR OPERATIONAL TRANSFORMATION?

The revolutionary nature of AMI technology and its potential for application to multiple areas of the utility makes an AMI implementation the perfect opportunity to adapt the utility operating structure. To use AMI as a platform for operational transformation, utilities must shift their thought paradigm from functionally based to enterprise-wide, process-centric environments. This approach will ensure that utilities take full advantage of AMI’s technological capabilities without being constrained by existing processes and organizational structures.

If the utility is to offer new programs and services as well as respond to shifting external demands, it must anticipate and respond quickly to changes in behaviors. Rapid information dissemination and quick response to changes in business, environmental and economic situations are essential for utilities that wish to encourage customers to think of energy in a new way and proactively manage their usage through participation in time-of-use and real-time demand response programs. This transition requires that system and organizational hand-offs be integrated to create a seamless and flexible work flow. Without this integration, utilities cannot proactively and quickly adapt processes to satisfy ever-increasing customer expectations. In essence, AMI fails if “smart meters” and “smart systems” are implemented without “smart processes” to support them.

DESIGNING SMART PROCESSES

Designing smart future state business processes to support transformational initiatives such as AMI involves more than just rearranging existing works flows. Instead, a utility must adopt a comprehensive approach to business process design – one that engages stakeholders throughout the organization and that enables them to design processes from the ground up. The utility must also design flexible processes that can adapt to changing customer, technology, business and regulatory expectations while avoiding the pitfalls of the current organization and process structure. As part of a utility’s business process design effort, it must also redefine jobs more broadly, increase training to support those jobs, enable decision making by front-line personnel and redirect rewards systems to focus on processes as well as outcomes. Utilities must also reshape organizational cultures to emphasize teamwork, personnel accountability and the customer’s importance; to redefine roles and responsibilities so that managers oversee processes instead of activities and develop people rather then supervise them; and to realign information system so that they help cross-functional processes work smoothly rather than simply support individual functional areas.

BUSINESS PROCESS DESIGN FRAMEWORK

IBM’s enterprise-wide business process design framework provides a structured approach to the development of the future state processes that support operational transformations and the complexities of AMI initiatives. This framework empowers utilities to apply business process design as the cornerstone of a broader effort to transition to a customer-centric organization capable of engaging external stakeholders. In addition, this framework also supports corporate decision making and continuous improvement by emphasizing real-time metrics and measurement of operational procedures. The framework is made up of the following five phases (Figure 1):

Phase 1 – As-is functional assessment. During this phase, utilities assess their current state processes and supporting organizations and systems. The goal of this phase is to identify gaps, overlaps and conflicts with existing processes and to identify opportunities to leverage the AMI technology. This assessment requires utility stakeholders to dissect existing process throughout the organization and identify instances where the utility is unable to fully meet customer, environmental and regulatory demands. The final step in this phase is to define a set of “future state” goals to guide process development. These goals must address all of the relevant opportunities to both improve existing processes and perform new functions and services.

Phase 2 – Future state process analysis. During this phase, utilities design end-to-end processes that meet the future state goals defined in Phase 1. To complete this effort, utilities must synthesize components from multiple functional areas and think outside the current organizational hierarchy. This phase requires engagement from participants throughout the utility organization, and participants should be encouraged to envision all relevant opportunities for using AMI to improve the utility’s relationship with customers, regulators and the environment. At the conclusion of this phase, all processes should be assessed in terms of their ability to alleviate the current state issues and to meet the future state goals defined in Phase 1.

Phase 3 – Impact identification. During this phase, utilities identify the organizational structure and corporate initiatives necessary to “operationalize” the future state processes. Key questions answered during this phase include how will utilities transition from current to future state? How will each functional area absorb the necessary changes? And what are the new organizations, roles and skills needed? This phase requires the utility to think outside of the current organizational structure to identify the optimal way to support the processes designed in Phase 2. During the impact identification phase of business, it’s crucial that process be positioned as the dominant organizational axis. Because process-organized utilities are not bound to a conventional hierarchy or fixed organizational structure, they can be customer-centric, make flexible use of their resources and respond rapidly to new business situations.

Phase 4 – Socialization. During this phase, utilities focus on obtaining ownership and buy-in from the impacted organizations and broader group of internal and external stakeholders. This phase often involves piloting the new processes and technology in a test environment and reaching out to a small set of customers to solicit feedback. This phase is also marked by the transition of the products from the first three phases of the business process design effort to the teams affected by the new processes – namely the impacted business areas as well as the organizational change management and information technology teams.

Phase 5 – Implementation and measurement. During the final phase of the business process design framework, the utility transitions from planning and design to implementation. The first step of this phase is to define the metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) that will be used to measure the success of the new processes – necessary if organizations and managers are to be held responsible for the new processes, and for guiding continuous refinement and improvement. After these metrics have been established, the new organizational structure is put in place and the new processes are introduced to this structure.

BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES OF BUSINESS PROCESS DESIGN

The business process design framework outlined above facilitates the permeation of the utility goals and objectives throughout the entire organization. This effort does not succeed, though, without significant participation from internal stakeholders and strong sponsorship from key executives.

The benefits of this approach include the following:

  • It facilitates ownership. Because the management team is engaged at the beginning of the AMI transformation, managers are encouraged to own future state processes from initial design through implementation.
  • It identifies key issues. A comprehensive business design effort allows for earlier visibility into key integration issues and provides ample time to resolve them prior to rolling out the technologies to the field.
  • It promotes additional capabilities. The business process framework enables the utility to develop innovative ways to apply the AMI technology and ensures that future state processes are aligned to business outcomes.
  • It puts the focus on customers. A thorough business process effort ensures that the necessary processes and functional groups are put in place to empower and inform the utility customer.

The challenges of this approach include the following:

  • It entails a complex transition. The utility must manage the complexities and ambiguities of shifting from functional-based operations to process-based management and decision making.
  • It can lead to high expectations. The utility must also manage stakeholder expectations and be clear that change will be slow and painful. Revolutionary change is made through evolutionary steps – meaning that utilities cannot expect to take very large steps at any point in the process.
  • There may be technological limitations. Throughout the business process design effort, utilities will identify new ways to improve customer satisfaction through the use of AMI technology. The standard technology, however, may not always support these visions; thus, utilities must be prepared to work with vendors to support the new processes.

Although execution of future state business process design undoubtedly requires a high degree of effort, a successful operational transformation is necessary to truly leverage the features of AMI technology. If utilities expect to achieve broad-reaching benefits, they must put in place the operational and organization structures to support the transformational initiatives. Utilities cannot afford to think of AMI as a standard technology implementation or to jump immediately to the definition of system and technology requirements. This approach will inevitably limit the impact of AMI solutions and leave utilities implementing cutting-edge technology with fragmented processes and inflexible, functionally based organizational structures.

Best Practices to Help Billers Drive Consumer Adoption of Paperless E-Bills

Executive Summary

With rising costs that threaten to erode profit margins, billing organizations are constantly looking for ways to decrease expenditures without sacrificing customer satisfaction. Companies that incur significant expenses associated with the delivery of recurring bills are fully aware of the cost savings to be had by offering e-bills (electronic representations of bills) in lieu of the traditional paper bills. This white paper is intended to be thought-provoking and offer ideas and considerations for driving paperless adoption. It will discuss best practices, what to look for in an electronic billing and payment (EBP) provider, and suggestions for creating a business case for e-bills.

Every interaction with your customers is an opportunity to strengthen relationships and maximize business profitability. Billing and payment touch points are ideal interactions because they command consumers’ attention every month. The key is to meet consumers where they choose to view and pay your bill and strategically guide them to low-cost channels, beginning with online payments and ultimately paperless billing.

Many billing organizations have aggressive paper suppression goals as part of an overall cost-savings initiative. A well thought-out strategy with a strong understanding of consumer preferences is necessary to maximize consumer adoption of paperless billing. This white paper will help billing organizations reach their paperless goals by highlighting best practices such as implementing the best EBP user interface and customer experience, utilizing a multi-channel approach, deploying effective marketing tactics and other innovative tactics.

Best Practice #1: Choose the Right EBP Solution

It is important to understand customer preferences in order to meet their payment needs while also guiding them from online payment to paperless billing. You want a user-friendly EBP solution that allows you to optimize every customer interaction and supports your paperless billing initiative.

Here are several best practices for creating an effective EBP experience at your site:

Enrollment – It should be very easy for consumers to find where to enroll on your site and the process should be painless. Don’t make it an obstacle. The information needed to enroll should be readily available to the consumer and should be limited to only that which is needed to meet your company’s security standards for validating a consumer’s identity. Minimizing the number of required fields decreases the opportunity for data entry errors that lead to frustration and abandonment from your site. It’s also important to make e-bill enrollment available through offline channels as well. Have your customer service reps offer to enroll customers while on the phone. If you have a location that customers visit in person, enable enrollment in these locations as well. Better yet, consider moving the enrollment process to the time of activation with your company so all new customers will be paperless.

User Interface – Customer experience at your site is paramount. Your EBP application should be customizable to match the look, feel and branding of your website to avoid confusing users with a disjointed process. The user interface (UI), if designed correctly, can play a leading role in creating a positive customer experience and driving e-bill adoption. The most important best practice to help drive paperless adoption is to continually educate consumers on what an e-bill is and the many personal and environmental benefits. The UI should be designed in such a way that e-bill messaging is prominent and eye-catching. In addition to repeatedly defining an e-bill and explaining its benefits throughout your site, include a thumbnail picture of your e-bill to help users make a direct association between the paper bill and the e-bill.

There are other ways your user interface can help drive paperless billing at your website, so make sure your EBP solution is capable of the following:

  • Allows and encourages customers to turn paper bills off and on at their discretion from your website. With a highly visible paper bill status indicator on your website, consumers get the comfort, choice and control they are looking for. This will eliminate calls to your call center requesting to turn paper bills off and on.
  • Offers various ways to answer questions about bill payment and presentment with easy-to-find help text. Make sure the help text appears on the EBP pages so the user doesn’t have to leave the page or interrupt a task to search for help.

EBP Functionality – A rich customer experience can have a significant impact on driving more consumers online. You can facilitate customers’ use of your online channel and ultimately paperless billing by implementing a user-tested application that meets their needs. Based on consumer feedback, you should consider the following best practices:

  • Offer real-time information so users can view their bill summary immediately after enrollment
  • Develop functionality that seamlessly integrates into your current website so customers don’t have to log in separately to view and pay bills
  • Display bill presentment and payment within the website without pop-up windows
  • Provide customers the flexibility to choose their preferred payment method (scheduled, one-time, recurring, Auto Pay) and their preferred funding source (checking account, credit card, debit card)
  • Present e-bill as a mirror image of the paper bill to ensure a smooth transition to your electronic version
  • Enable billing-related notifications via multiple channels like e-mail or text messages
  • Store a sufficient amount of bill history with quick and easy retrieval capabilities

Best Practice #2: Consider a Multi-Channel Approach To Distribute Your e-Bills

New technologies have changed the way consumers choose to pay bills. While more than 51 percent of U.S. online bill payers use biller direct sites, 25 percent prefer the convenience of single bill pay sites1 and that segment is expected to continue growing. Forrester predicts that bank EBP growth rates will be close to twice that of biller sites through 20112 and TowerGroup estimates a bank EBP compounded annual growth rate of 24 percent through 2012.3 Therefore, in order to meet all your consumers at their preferred payment channels, you need to make your e-bills available at bank and financial websites in addition to your biller direct site.

Only 17 percent of U.S. billing organizations have not identified the bank channel as important to their online billing strategy, while the other 83 percent have already begun utilizing the consolidated channel and plan to continue doing so in the future.4 The days of viewing bank websites as your competition are long gone. Complementing your biller direct site with e-bill presentment in the bank channel is the way to meet all your online consumers at their payment point of preference.

You will not lose cross-sell and up-sell opportunities at your site because approximately two thirds of e-bill recipients visit their biller’s website for self-service or last-minute payment activities.1 Instead, you gain the opportunity to increase your paperless adoption rates.

The same study states that consumers who pay bills at bank sites have a higher propensity to go paperless. The data shows that in 2007, the percentage of consumers who opted for paperless bills at their bank site is double that of consumers choosing paperless at biller direct sites. When a large national insurance company began delivering its bills electronically to banks and financial institutions in January of 2008, they grew enrollments by 85,000 enrollments in the first three months alone. This is an example of the success to be achieved by distributing e-bills to banks and financial institutions.

With every paper bill turned off, you save on all the expenses of mailing bills: paper, printing, mailing envelopes, return envelopes, handling and postage, but the savings don’t stop there. Many of the large banks and financial institutions aggressively promote the availability of billers’ e-bills. You can benefit from all the e-bill marketing messages directed to your customers at no cost to you.

In addition to cost savings, distributing your e-bills to bank and financial institution websites will improve customer satisfaction and retention. According to CheckFree Consumer Insights data, 27 percent of consumers who receive a biller’s e-bills at their home banking site are more satisfied with that biller and 33 percent are more loyal.1 Unfortunately, the converse may also be true. Consumers who are already paying bills at their home banking site will be dissatisfied with your company if your e-bill is not available where they prefer to view and pay bills.

Distribution of your bills electronically to banks and financial institutions is the perfect complement to your own biller direct site. It is an essential part of any EBP strategy because it is the only way to give consumers the option of paperless billing from their home banking site. By delivering your e-bills to the bank channel, you can satisfy consumers’ needs at their payment point of preference while making headway on your paper adoption goals. It is a win-win for you and your customers.

Best Practice #3: Marketing and Promoting e-Bills

Once you have an easy, user-friendly e-bill program, the next step is to create a marketing campaign to drive awareness and guide customers from their current paper-based bill pay routine to online billing. Craft a clear, concise, actionable message and continually promote it through multiple consumer touch points. The message should include an explanation of what an e-bill is and the many advantages over the traditional paper bill. Emphasize specific consumer benefits (reduces risk of identity fraud, reduces clutter, simplifies bill management, saves time) and the environmental impact (reduces paper, saves trees and conserves energy).

Many companies have seen great success by educating consumers on the positive environmental impact of paperless billing as a way to drive e-bill adoption. According to a survey by CheckFree Consumer Insights, 48 percent of consumers cited, “It’s better for the environment,” as the top reason for choosing paperless billing. Consider a similar approach and direct proceeds to a local charitable organization to give customers an opportunity to make a difference within their own community.

Another marketing approach that has proven successful is offering sweepstakes incentives to enroll in e-bills. Con Edison of New York has used this approach by offering prizes such as MacBook®
computers and ENERGY STAR room air conditioners. Its most recent sweepstakes offered the chance to win an Apple®
iPhone™. The results were great; e-bill adoption increased 48 percent over the same period the prior year.

Whether your message focuses on the environment, convenience or both, use it to promote your e-bill service at every possible consumer touch point in an ongoing campaign. The following are steps you can take quickly and inexpensively:

  • Print a targeted message on consumer bills and return envelopes
  • Announce your campaign through a companysponsored press release
  • Display dynamic e-bill messaging prominently throughout your website
  • Include a thumbnail image of your e-bill to provide a visual reference for consumers
  • Incorporate an e-bill message in your on-hold recording
  • Have your customer service representatives promote e-bills over the phone and in person
  • Present the electronic bill as a mirror image of the paper bill to ensure a smooth transition to your electronic version
  • Dedicate a section to e-bills in your customer newsletter
  • Create a specific e-bill communication delivered via e-mail
  • Supplement your own consumer education efforts with tools such as PayItGreen.org and eBILLPLACE.com

Make every effort to find an internal executive champion for your marketing ideas and remember that the most successful campaigns are those that are comprehensive, ubiquitous and ongoing.

Best Practice #4: Utilize Innovative Tactics

In spite of all your communication efforts, some consumers may still not be comfortable with the idea of giving up their paper bill because it serves as a physical reminder of a due payment or for recordkeeping purposes. There are many who still don’t understand what an e-bill is or how it works. To combat the education and awareness barriers, take the opportunity to think and act outside the box. Here are three examples of successful innovative tactics:

1. Give Consumers Control of E-Bills at Bank Websites
In 2008, 45 percent of e-bill viewers said that the ability to turn on their paper bill at anytime would make them more willing to suppress their paper versions.1 The idea of going paperless becomes more attractive when the consumer is given choice and control. Earlier in this paper, it was recommended to choose an EBP solution that enables customers to turn their paper bills on and off from your biller direct site. Now, consider going one step further and create the same sense of control for your customers at consolidated sites by enabling an e-bill trial period. (This is only possible if you are already delivering your e-bills to bank and financial institution websites.) A trial period gives consumers two options: 1) Sign up for paperless e-bills or 2) Enter an e-bill trial period to become familiar with e-bills while the paper bill remains. Verizon Communications implemented this tactic and saw a 10 percent increase in e-bill activations, and almost 50 percent of customers presented with the trial
period opted to suppress their paper bill either immediately or at some point during the 90-day trial period.

2. Utilize Your Front Line to Help Drive E-Bill Adoption
Generally, a biller’s goal is to drive customers online for billing and payment activities rather than having them call customer service representatives (CSRs). However each phone call is extremely important because it is often the only human contact customers have with your company. Try a novel approach and include CSRs in your plan to drive e-bill adoption. Start by determining what motivates them – whether it’s an in-office party, a catered lunch or the chance to win a prize. Then communicate to your front line employees that you need their help educating consumers on the benefits of e-bills to drive paperless adoption. Set an e-bill activation goal and commit to a reward if the goal is reached.

Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL) created an e-bill adoption campaign for its customer service team and had positive results. An aggressive yet attainable e-bill activation goal was set and an in-office party was promised as the reward if the goal was met. The CSRs were given e-bill talking points and online enrollment instructions, and they were encouraged to promote e-bills as much as possible. They were not given a script. Instead, they were given the authority to use their own judgment when speaking with callers. After six weeks, IPL surpassed the goal and increased e-bill activations by 35 percent during the campaign. “Don’t underestimate your front line team,”
said Bill Bisson, Customer Service Manager at IPL when asked about his innovative approach to promoting e-bills.

The success of IPL’s campaign was driven by the fact that all employees, up through the top executives, understand the value of e-bills. IPL’s Executive Management Team was instrumental in driving awareness and support from the entire organization by reinforcing the importance of the e-bill adoption initiative. Bill Bisson says the success of his CSR campaign demonstrates that, “It’s important to have support from the top down.”

3. Consider Defaulting the Bill Setting to “Paperless”
During Enrollment

According to Forrester, there is a segment of consumers who have not adopted e-bills yet because they “just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”5 While this is a more aggressive tactic, consider this change to the account set-up process: When a consumer is asked to choose paper bills or e-bills, default the selection to e-bills. This does not restrict someone from selecting paper bills, but those who are more open to e-bills may be likely to accept the default. A large utility company in the Midwest reaped a 20 percent increase in the number of people going paperless with this approach.

Choose the Right EBP Provider to Meet Your Needs

When choosing an EBP provider, it is important to work with a company that will be a business partner rather than just a vendor. Besides finding a trusted, established organization with a proven track record and a strong history of reliability, here is a list of what to look for when you begin your evaluation:

  • Goal Alignment Yields Success: Choose a provider whose top priorities are aligned with yours – overcoming barriers to e-bills and driving paperless adoption.
  • Research is the Key: Make sure your EBP provider conducts and/or commissions ongoing research and usability testing to understand consumer behavior to make product and user interface improvements.
  • Innovation, Innovation, Innovation: You want a vendor who invests in the future of EBP, stays in the forefront of technology and can be quick to market with proven innovative solutions designed to drive paperless adoption.
  • One Size Does Not Fit All: You want a partner who will listen to you and provide a tailored solution to help you achieve your EBP goals while keeping the company’s goals in mind. The paper suppression strategy should be different for companies charged with cost reduction versus those focused on improving customer satisfaction or somewhere in between.
  • Largest, Widest Reach: Choose an EBP provider who has solutions for multiple channels so you can work with one company for all your EBP needs – a superior EBP solution at your biller direct site, the capability to deliver your e-bills to as many banks as possible, as well as the ability to support walk-in and phone payments.
  • It’s All About You: Work with a vendor who realizes that you have goals other than paper suppression and has solutions that can help. For example, if you have the desire to cross-sell and up-sell to consumers on your website, choose a vendor who can utilize billing information to create targeted, customized messaging within your EBP application.
  • Account Management: Having a dedicated account management team providing operational support will ensure a quality experience for your customers. They will also keep you informed on industry trends and new products.
  • Marketing Know-How: You want an EBP partner who offers marketing support and collaboration in developing campaigns designed to drive adoption. From experience, they should be able to tell you the best way to motivate your customers, what messages resonate best with different segments, and what incentives, if any, would be effective in changing consumer behaviors.

Tips for Building a Business Case for EBP

Once you have decided on the right EBP solution and provider for your business, the next step is to create a compelling business case to justify your recommendation and gain executive support. Achieving approval and funding for cost-saving initiatives can be more challenging than for revenue-generating projects, so here are some best practices to consider when developing your business case:

Include All Impacted Departments – According to TowerGroup, 100 percent of billers surveyed included a cost/benefit analysis from multiple departments.4 The benefits of including other departments in this process are two fold: not only will you receive additional data to support your business case, but you will gain internal cross-functional support early on. Both will help you when looking for executive approval of your project. This exercise will also help minimize implementation delays by keeping all impacted parties informed.

Develop a Comprehensive ROI Model – Make sure to capture all the possible savings from e-bills and paperless billing. Start with the due diligence of determining the costs associated with your current print and mail process to help accurately calculate the saving per activated e-bill. Next, forecast the e-bill adoption rate for your biller direct site. This can be challenging, so the best approach is to use industry averages. Your EBP provider should be able to supply these percentages.

If you plan to distribute your e-bills to banks and financial institutions, you need to forecast the e-bill adoption rate for this channel and include the savings into the ROI model. Your EBP provider should be able to help you predict the number of e-bill activations you can expect by determining the number of payments you currently receive from banks and applying an industry adoption average. Don’t forget to include the savings from fewer claims as a result of more accurate account information from e-bills.

Other items to be included in your ROI calculation are:

  • Increasing Postage Rates – Now that the USPS has the ability to raise postage rates every year, include an increase of at least one cent to your cost per bill each year.
  • Marketing Expenses – Include some reduced marketing expenses if your EBP provider offers marketing consultation and creative assets for your use.
  • Privacy and Security Expenses – With an outsourced EBP solution, you can reduce expenses associated with regulatory compliance.

Incorporate Soft Returns – While soft returns may not fit into the ROI model because they are difficult to quantify, they should not be omitted from the business case.

  • Research shows that consumers are more satisfied and loyal when they receive e-bills, regardless of the channel.1&7
  • You can be a leader in “green” environmental activities. Forty-three percent of consumers are more likely to do business with an environmentally friendly company.8
  • As you drive more consumers to your site for bill viewing, you will increase online marketing opportunities.
  • Research shows that 58 percent of customer calls are billing and payment related. With new self-service features from an EBP solution, you can anticipate a decrease in billing related calls. This can allow for repurposing of FTEs.9

Provide Examples – Support your business case with real life examples from other billers in your industry who have implemented an EBP strategy and describe their success. This will validate the numbers in your business case. Hopefully, your EBP provider can share case studies to exemplify the potential results.

What to Avoid – The savings per e-bill will be the bulk of your cost savings so it is important to be as accurate and realistic as possible. Be conservative and don’t over estimate adoption rates. Work with your provider to get an accurate project plan to tell you the number of IT resources and hours this project will require. You might be surprised at how minimal the requirements are. And lastly, don’t forget to include initial and on-going training costs for your front-line employees. Your customer service representatives can prove to be very valuable in helping to promote e-bills to your consumers if they are properly educated.

Conclusion

Is paper suppression a priority within your organization? Has your company already implemented some or all of the best practices mentioned in this paper? If not, begin thinking about what you can do in the short term with minimal expense (bill messaging, on-hold messaging, newsletter messaging, etc.). Then determine the company’s budget and IT resources available to pursue some of the higher-impact recommendations. If you are ready to begin researching options that are best for your organization, you can find more information at www.checkfree.com/billersolutions. Or, if you are interested in learning how other billing organizations in your industry have grown their e-bill adoption rates, you can find case studies at www.checkfree.com/resourceroom.

Footnotes

  1. CheckFree Consumer Insights, Consumer Billing and Payment Trends, February 2008
  2. Forrester, EBPP Forecast: 2006 To 2011, May 2007
  3. TowerGroup, Expedited Online Bill Payments: A New Revenue Stream for Financial Institutions, 2008
  4. TowerGroup, 2008 Biller Survey on EBPP, November 2008
  5. Forrester, Online Bill Pay 2007: Understanding The Mindset Of Holdouts, Fence-Sitters, And Quitters, December 2007
  6. Aite, Biller Direct Technology: A Vendor Overview, August 2008
  7. CheckFree Consumer Insights, Biller Direct Survey Findings, June 2008
  8. Javelin Strategy and Research, The Four E’s of Green Banking, June 2008
  9. PayStream Advisors, Consumer-To-Business Payments, Webinar, August 2006

Smart Metering Options for Electric and Gas Utilities

Should utilities replace current consumption meters with “smart metering” systems that provide more information to both utilities and customers? Increasingly, the answer is yes. Today, utilities and customers are beginning to see the advantages of metering systems that provide:

  • Two-way communication between the utility and the meter; and
  • Measurement that goes beyond a single consolidated quarterly or monthly consumption total to include time-of-use and interval measurement.

For many, “smart metering” is synonymous with an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) that collects, processes and distributes metered data effectively across the entire utility as well as to the customer base (Figure 1).

SMART METERING REVOLUTIONIZES UTILITY REVENUE AND SERVICE POTENTIAL

When strategically evaluated and deployed, smart metering can deliver a wide variety of benefits to utilities.

Financial Benefits

  • Significantly speeds cash flow and associated earnings on revenue. Smart metering permits utilities to read meters and send the data directly to the billing application. Bills go out immediately, cutting days off the meter-to-cash cycle.
  • Improves return on investment via faster processing of final bills. Customers can request disconnects as the moving van pulls away. Smart metering polls the meter and gives the customer the amount of the final bill. Online or credit card payments effectively transform final bill collection cycles from a matter of weeks to a matter of seconds.
  • Reduces bad debt. Smart metering helps prevent bad debt by facilitating the use of prepayment meters. It also reduces the size of overdue bills by enabling remote disconnects, which do not depend on crew availability.

Operational Cost Reductions

  • Slashes the cost to connect and disconnect customers. Smart metering can virtually eliminate the costs of field crews and vehicles previously required to change service from the old to the new residents of a metered property.
  • Lowers insurance and legal costs. Field crew insurance costs are high – and they’re even higher for employees subject to stress and injury while disconnecting customers with past-due bills. Remote disconnects through smart metering lower these costs. They also reduce medical leave, disability pay and compensation claims. Remote disconnects also significantly cut the number of days that employees and lawyers spend on perpetrator prosecutions and attempts to recoup damages.
  • Cuts the costs of managing vegetation. Smart metering can pinpoint blinkouts, reducing the cost of unnecessary tree trimming.
  • Reduces grid-related capital expenses. With smart metering, network managers can analyze and improve block-by-block power flows. Distribution planners can better size transformers. Engineers can identify and resolve bottlenecks and other inefficiencies. The benefits include increased throughput and reductions in grid overbuilding.
  • Shaves supply costs. Supply managers use interval data to fine-tune supply portfolios. Because smart metering enables more efficient procurement and delivery, supply costs decline.
  • Cuts fuel costs. Many utility service calls are “false alarms.” Checking meter status before dispatching crews prevents many unnecessary truck rolls. Reduces theft. Smart metering can identify illegal attempts to reconnect meters, or to use energy and water in supposedly vacant premises. It can also detect theft by comparing flows through a valve or transformer with billed consumption.

Compliance Monitoring

  • Ensures contract compliance. Gas utilities can use one-hour interval meters to monitor compliance from interruptible, or “non-core,” customers and to levy fines against contract violators.
  • Ensures regulatory compliance. Utilities can monitor the compliance of customers with significant outdoor lighting by comparing similar intervals before and during a restricted time period. For example, a jurisdiction near a wildlife area might order customers to turn off outdoor lighting so as to promote breeding and species survival.
  • Reduces outage duration by identifying outages more quickly and pinpointing outage and nested outage locations. Smart metering also permits utilities to ensure outage resolution at every meter location.
  • Sizes outages more accurately. Utilities can ensure that they dispatch crews with the skills needed – and adequate numbers of personnel – to handle a specific job.
  • Provides updates on outage location and expected duration. Smart metering helps call centers inform customers about the timing of service restoration. It also facilitates display of outage maps for customer and public service use.
  • Detect voltage fluctuations. Smart metering can gather and report voltage data. Customer satisfaction rises with rapid resolution of voltage issues.

New Services

For utilities that offer services besides commodity delivery, smart metering provides an entry to such new business opportunities as:

  • Monitoring properties. Landlords reduce costs of vacant properties when utilities notify them of unexpected energy or water consumption. Utilities can perform similar services for owners of vacation properties or the adult children of aging parents.
  • Monitoring equipment. Power-use patterns can reveal a need for equipment maintenance. Smart metering enables utilities to alert owners or managers to a need for maintenance or replacement.
  • Facilitating home and small-business networks. Smart metering can provide a gateway to equipment networks that automate control or permit owners to access equipment remotely. Smart metering also facilitates net metering, offering some utilities a path toward involvement in small-scale solar or wind generation.

Environmental Improvements

Many of the smart metering benefits listed above include obvious environmental benefits. When smart metering lowers a utility’s fuel consumption or slows grid expansion, cleaner air and a better preserved landscape result. Smart metering also facilitates conservation through:

  • Leak detection. When interval reads identify premises where water or gas consumption never drops to zero, leaks are an obvious suspect.
  • Demand response and critical peak pricing. Demand response encourages more complete use of existing base power. Employed in conjunction with critical peak pricing, it also reduces peak usage, lowering needs for new generators and transmission corridors.
  • Load control. With the consent of the owner, smart metering permits utilities or other third parties to reduce energy use inside a home or office under defined circumstances.

CHALLENGES IN SMART METERING

Utilities preparing to deploy smart metering systems need to consider these important factors:

System Intelligence. There’s a continuing debate in the utility industry as to whether smart metering intelligence should be distributed or centralized. Initial discussions of advanced metering tended to assume intelligence embedded in meters. Distributed intelligence seemed part of a trend, comparable to “smart cards,” “smart locks” and scores of other everyday devices with embedded computing power.

Today, industry consensus favors centralized intelligence. Why? Because while data processing for purposes of interval billing can take place in either distributed or central locations, other applications for interval data and related communications systems cannot. In fact, utilities that opt for processing data at the meter frequently make it impossible to realize a number of the benefits listed above.

Data Volume. Smart metering inevitably increases the amount of meter data that utilities must handle. In the residential arena, for instance, using hour-long measurement intervals rather than monthly consumption totals replaces 12 annual reads per customer with 8,760 reads – a 730-fold increase.

In most utilities today, billing departments “own” metering data. Interval meter reads, however, are useful to many departments. These readings can provide information on load size and shape – data that can then be analyzed to help reduce generation and supply portfolio costs. Interval reads are even more valuable when combined with metering features like two-way communication between meter and utility, voltage monitoring and “last gasp” messages that signal outages.

This new data provides departments outside billing with an information treasure trove. But when billing departments control the data, others frequently must wait for access lest they risk slowing down billing to a point that damages revenue flow.

Meter Data Management. An alternative way to handle data volume and multiple data requests is to offload it into a stand-alone meter data management (MDM) application.

MDM applications gather and store meter data. They can also perform the preliminary processing required for different departments and programs. Most important, MDM gives all units equal access to commonly held meter data resources (Figure 2).

MDM provides an easy pathway between data and the multiple applications and departments that need it. Utilities can more easily consolidate and integrate data from multiple meter types, and reduce the cost of building and maintaining application interfaces. Finally, MDM provides a place to store and use data, whose flow into the system cannot be regulated – for example, in situations such as the flood of almost simultaneous messages from tens of thousands of meters sending a “last gasp” during a major outage.

WEIGHING THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SMART METERING

Smart metering on a mass scale is relatively new. No utility can answer all questions in advance. There are ways, however, to mitigate the risks:

Consider all potential benefits. Smart metering may be a difficult cost to justify if it rests solely on customer acceptance of demand response. Smart metering is easier to cost-justify when its deployment includes, for instance, the value of the many benefits listed above.

Evaluate pilots. Technology publications are full of stories about successful pilots followed by unsuccessful products. That’s because pilots frequently protect participants from harsh financial consequences. And it’s difficult for utility personnel to avoid spending time and attention on participants in ways that encourage them to buy into the program. Real-life program rollouts lack these elements.

Complicating the problem are likely differences between long-term and short-term behavior. The history of gasoline conservation programs suggests that while consumers initially embrace incentives to car pool or use public transportation, few make such changes on a permanent basis.

Examining the experiences of utilities in the smart metering forefront – in Italy, for example, or in California and Idaho – may provide more information than a pilot.

Develop a complete business case. Determining the cost-benefit ratio of smart metering is challenging. Some costs – for example, meter prices and installation charges – may be relatively easy to determine. Others require careful calculations. As an example, when interval meters replace time-of-use meters, how does the higher cost of interval meters weigh against the fact that they don’t require time-of-use manual reprogramming?

As in any business case, some costs must be estimated:

  • Will customer sign-up equal the number needed to break even?
  • How long will the new meters last?
  • Do current meter readers need to be retrained, and if so, what will that cost?
  • Will smart metering help retain customers that might otherwise be lost?
  • Can new services such as equipment efficiency analyses be offered, and if so, how much should the utility charge for them?

Since some utilities are already rolling out smart metering programs, it’s becoming easier to obtain real-life numbers (rather than estimates) to plug into your business case.

CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES

Technology is “smart” only when it reduces the cost of obtaining specified objectives. Utilities may find it valuable to try lower-cost routes to some results, including:

  • Customer charges to prevent unnecessary truck rolls. Such fees are common among telephone service providers and have worked well for some gas utilities responding to repeated false alarms from householder-installed carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Time-of-use billing with time/rate relationships that remain constant for a year or more. This gives consumers opportunities to make time-shifting a habit.
  • Customer education to encourage consumers to use the time-shifting features on their appliances as a contribution to the environment. Most consumers have no idea that electricity goes to waste at night. Keeping emissions out of the air and transmission towers out of the landscape could be far more compelling to many consumers than a relatively small saving resulting from an on- and off-peak pricing differential.
  • Month-to-month rate variability. One study found that approximately a third of the efficiency gains from real-time interval pricing could be captured by simply varying the flat retail rates monthly – and at no additional cost for metering. [1] While a third of the efficiency gains might not be enough to attain long-term goals, they might be enough to fill in a shorter-term deficit, permitting technology costs and regulatory climates to stabilize before decisions must be made.
  • Multitier pricing based on consumption. Today, two-tier pricing – that is, a lower rate for the first few-hundred kilowatt-hours per month and a higher rate for additional hours – is common. However, three or four tiers might better capture the attention of those whose consumption is particularly high – owners of large homes and pool heaters, for instance – without burdening those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Tiers plus exception handling for hardships like high-consuming medical equipment would almost certainly be less difficult and expensive than universal interval metering.

A thorough evaluation of the benefits and challenges of advanced metering systems, along with an understanding of alternative means to achieving those benefits, is essential to utilities considering deployment of advanced metering systems.

Note: The preceding was excerpted from the Oracle white paper “Smart Metering for Electric and Gas Utilities.” To receive the complete paper, Email oracleutilities_ww@oracle.com.

ENDNOTE

  1. Holland and Mansur, “The Distributional and Environmental Effects of Time-varying Prices in Competitive Electricity Markets.” Results published in “If RTP Is So Great, Why Don’t We See More of It?” Center for the Study of Energy Markets Research Review, University of California Energy Institute, Spring 2006. Available at www.ucei.berkeley.edu/

Intelligent Communications Platform Provides Foundation for Clean Technology Solutions to Smart Grid

Since the wake-up call of the 2003 blackout in the northeastern United States and Canada, there’s been a steady push to improve the North American power grid. Legislation in both the United States and Canada has encouraged investments in technologies intended to make the grid intelligent and to solve critical energy issues. The Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005 mandated that each state evaluate the business case for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). In Ontario, the Energy Conservation Responsibility Act of 2006 mandated deployment of smart meters to all consumers by 2010. And the recent U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 expands support from the U.S. government for investments in smart grid technologies while further emphasizing the need for the power industry to play a leadership role in addressing carbon dioxide emissions affecting climate change.

Recent state-level legislation and consumer sentiment suggest an increasing appetite for investments in distributed clean-technology energy solutions. Distributed generation technologies such as solar, wind and bio-diesel are becoming more readily available and have the potential to significantly improve grid operations and reliability.

THE NEXT STEP

Although the full vision for the smart grid is still somewhat undefined, most agree that an intelligent communications platform is a necessary foundation for developing and realizing this vision. Of the 10 elements that define the smart grid as contained within the Energy Act of 2007, more than half directly relate to or involve advanced capabilities for advanced communications.

A core business driver for intelligent communications is full deployment of smart metering, also referred to as advanced metering infrastructure. AMI involves automated measurement of time-of-use energy consumption – at either hourly or 15-minute intervals – and provides for new time-of-use rates that encourage consumers to use energy during off-peak hours when generation costs are low rather than peak periods when generation costs are high and the grid is under stress. With time-of-use rates, consumers may continue to use power during high peak periods but will pay a higher price to do so. AMI may also include remote service switch functionality that can reduce costs associated with site visits otherwise required to manage move-out/move-ins or to support prepayment programs.

Other smart grid capabilities that may be easily realized through the deployment of intelligent communications and AMI include improved outage management detection and restoration monitoring, revenue assurance and virtual metering of distribution assets.

CRITICAL ATTRIBUTES OF AMI SOLUTIONS

Modern communications network solutions leverage standards-based technology such as IEEE 802.15.4 to provide robust two-way wireless mesh network communications to intelligent devices. The intelligent communications platform should provide for remote firmware upgrades to connected intelligent devices and be capable of leveraging Internet protocol-based communications across multiple wide-area network (WAN) options (Figure 1).

Critical for maximizing the value of a communications infrastructure investment is support for broad interoperability and interconnectivity. Interoperability for AMI applications means supporting a range of options for metering devices. A communications platform system should be meter manufacturer-independent, empowering choice for utilities. This provides for current and future competitiveness for the meter itself, which is one of the more expensive elements of the smart metering solution.

Interconnectivity for communications platforms refers to the ability to support a broad range of functions, both end-point devices and systems at the head end. To support demand-side management and energy-efficiency initiatives, an intelligent communications platform should support programmable communicating thermostats (PCTs), in-home displays (IHDs) and load control switches.

The system may also support standards-based home-area networks (HANs) such as ZigBee and Zensys. Ultimately an intelligent communications platform should support a model whereby third-party manufacturers can develop solutions that operate on the network, providing competitive options for utilities.

For enterprise system interconnectivity, an AMI demand-side management or other smart grid head-end application should be developed using service-oriented architecture (SOA) principles and Web technologies. These applications should also support modern Web services-based solutions, providing published simple object access protocol (SOAP)-based APIs. This approach provides for easier integration with existing enterprise systems and simplifies the process of adding functionality (either through enhancements provided by the vendor or add-ons delivered by third parties or developed by the utility).

Finally, the value of an intelligent communications platform deployment is driven by the ability of other enterprise applications and processes to utilize the vast amount of new data received through the AMI , demand side management and smart grid applications. Core areas of extended value include integration with customer information systems and call center processes, and integration with outage management and work management systems. In addition, the intelligent communications platform makes utilities much better able to market new offerings to targeted customers based on their energy consumption profiles while also empowering consumers with new tools and access to information. The result: greater control over energy consumption costs and improved satisfaction.

INTEGRATION OF DISTRIBUTED GENERATION RESOURCES

Deployment and integration of distributed generation, including renewable resources, is an important supply-side element of the smart grid vision. This may include the installation of arrays of solar photovoltaic panels on home and office roofs, solar carports, small wind (3-5kvA) turbines, small biogas turbines and fuel cells.

By integrating these resources into a common communications platform, utilities have the opportunity to develop solutions that achieve much greater results than those provided simply by the sum of independent systems. For example, intelligent plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEvs) connected to a smart solar carport may choose when to purchase power for charging the car or even to sell power back to the grid in a vehicle-to-grid (v2G) model based on dynamic price signals received through the communications platform. By maintaining intelligence at the edge of the grid, consumers and distributed resource owners can be empowered to manage to their own benefits and the grid as a whole.

SUMMARY

Now is the time to embark on realizing the smart grid vision. Global warming and system reliability issues are driving a sense of urgency. An intelligent communications platform provides a foundation capable of supporting multiple devices in multiple environments – commercial, industrial and residential – working seamlessly together in a single unified network.

All of the technical assets of a smart grid can be managed holistically rather than as isolated or poorly connected parts. The power of a network grows geometrically according to the amount of resources and assets actively connected to it. This is the future of the smart grid, and it’s available today.

Smart Meters on a Roll in Canada

Electricity supply challenges in Ontario, Canada, have led the provincial government there to take aggressive action on both the supply and demand sides to meet customer electricity needs. Between now and 2025, it’s estimated that Ontario must build an almost entirely new electricity system – including replacing approximately 80 percent of current generating facilities (as they’re retired over time) and expanding the system to meet future growth. However, just as building new supply is vital, so too is conservation. That’s why Ontario’s provincial government is introducing new tools like smart meters to encourage electricity consumers to think more about how and when they use electricity. By implementing a smart metering infrastructure by 2010, the province hopes to provide a foundation for achieving a more than five percent reduction in provincial demand through load shifting, energy savings and price awareness.

Hydro One owns and operates one of the 10 largest transmission and distribution systems in North America, serving a geographic area of about 640,000 square kilometers. As the leading electricity transmitter and distributor in Ontario, the company supports the province’s goal of creating a conservation culture in Ontario and having a smart meter in every Ontario home and small business. The company’s allocation of the province’s target was 240,000 smart meters by 2007 and the full 1.3 million by 2010.

The task for Hydro One and other local distribution companies (LDCs) in the province is to meet the government time line while at the same time building an enabling solution that provides the most upside for operations, demand management and customer satisfaction. Working with the industry regulator and the LDCs, phased goals were established and allocated among the major utilities in the province.

ADVANCED METERING INFRASTRUCTURE AND SOLUTION ARCHITECTURE

Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is the term used to describe all of the hardware, software and connectivity required for a fully functioning smart metering system. To view AMI as just a technology to remotely read meters and bill customers, however, would be to miss the full potential of smart metering.

The core of the solution resides with the requirement for a ubiquitous communications network and an integration approach that provides for the exploitation of data from many types of devices (automated meter reading, load control, in-home displays, distribution monitoring and control and so on) by making it available to numerous enterprise applications (for example, customer information, outage management, asset management, geographic information and work execution systems).

To meet this requirement, the Hydro One team architected an end-to-end solution that rigorously sought open standards and the use of IP at all communications levels to ensure that the network and integration would be available to and compatible with numerous applications.

Hydro One’s AMI solution is based on standards (ANSI and IEEE) and open protocols (Zigbee and IP) to ensure maximum flexibility into the future as the technology and underlying applications such as in-home energy conservation devices (two-way real-time monitors, pool pump timers and so on) and various utility applications evolve.

Smart Meters

The “smarts” in any smart meter can be housed in virtually any meter platform. Meter reads are communicated at a frequency of 2.4 GHz by a radio housed under the meter’s glass. In essence, the hourly meter reads are transmitted by hopping from one meter to the next, forming a self-organizing network that culminates at the advanced meter regional collector (AMRC). This type of local area network, or LAN, is known as a mesh network and is known for its self-healing characteristics: if communication between meters is interrupted for any reason, communication paths between meters are automatically rerouted to the regional collector to ensure that data is delivered reliably and on time. The installed smart meters also have a “super capacitor,” enabling the meter to send a last communication to the utility when there has been a power outage.

Repeaters

Repeaters provide a wireless range extender for the meters and are used in less densely populated areas in the province to allow data to be transmitted from one meter to the next. Typically, repeaters are needed if the hop between meters is greater than 1 to 2 kilometers (depending on a number of factors, including terrain and ground cover).

Advanced Metering Regional Collectors

Typically installed on poles at preselected locations within a local area network, advanced metering regional collectors (AMRCs) gather the meter readings in a defined area. Most importantly, the AMRCs provide access to the wide area network (WAN), where data is sent wirelessly back to Hydro One. The AMI solution is designed to accommodate either wireless cellular or broadband WAN to backhaul hourly meter reads to the advanced metering control computer.

Advanced Metering Control Computer

The advanced metering control computer (AMCC) is used to retrieve and temporarily store meter reads from the regional collectors before they’re transmitted to the meter data management repository (discussed below). The information stored in the AMCC is available to log maintenance and data transmission faults, and to issue reports on the overall health of the AMI system.

Meter Data Management Repository

MDM/R is the acronym for the province-wide meter data management repository. The MDM/R provides a common infrastructure for receiving meter reads from all LDCs in Ontario, processing the reads to produce billing quality consumption data, and storing and managing the data. The Ontario government has entered into an agreement with the Independent Electricity System Operator to coordinate and manage implementation activities associated with the MDM/R.

Billing

Time-of-use “bucketed” data is sent from the MDM/R to Hydro One for any exception handling that may be required and for customer billing. Hydro One prepares the bill and sends it to the customer for payment.

Web Presentment of Customer Usage Data

Customer electricity usage data will be available to customers by 9 a.m. the day after they use it via a secure website. This data will be clearly marked as preliminary data until the customer has been billed.

GOALS, OBJECTIVES AND KEY ACCOMPLISHMENTS

To successfully deploy the smart metering solution described above, the Hydro One team set out to accomplish the following goals and objectives (which are enshrined in project governance plans and daily project activities):

  • Balance investment with the regulatory process to ensure that smart meter investments don’t get ahead of changes in regulatory requirements.
  • Design, test, prototype and pilot prior to buying or building – a rule that applies to all aspects of the smart meter solution architecture, from the meters and communication network to the back-office systems.
  • Delay building solution components until line-of-business requirements are locked down. Solution components that are unlikely to change will be built before other components to minimize the risk of rework.
  • Test smart meter deployment business processes, technology and customer experience throughout the process.
  • Ensure positive customer experience and value, including providing customers with information and tools to leverage smart meters in an appropriate time frame.
  • Use commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) products where possible (as opposed to custom solutions).
  • Include estimation of total cost of ownership (one-time and ongoing costs) in architectural decision making.
  • Enable commencement of time-of-use (TOU) billing in 2009.

Key project accomplishments to date have included:

  • Building an in-situ lab using WiMax and meters in rural areas to test and confirm open protocols, wireless broadband interoperability, and meter performance;
  • Conducting a community rollout of about 15,000 meters to develop and successfully test and optimize meter change automation tools and customer communication processes;
  • Mass deploying of just over a quarter of a million meters across the province;
  • Designing and beginning to build the communication network to support the collection of hourly reads from approximately 1.3 million customers.

METER AND NETWORK DEPLOYMENT

Meter installation teams surpassed a notable milestone of 250,000 installed smart meters as of December 2007. Network deployment began in 2007 with a planned ramp-up in 2008 of installing more than 2,000 AMRCs province-wide.

Meeting these targets has required well-coordinated activities across the project team while working in parallel with external entities such as MeasurementCanada and others to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements.

Throughout meter and network deployment activities, Hydro One has adhered closely to three primary guiding principles, namely:

Safety. The following initiatives were factored into the project to help maintain a safe environment for all employees and business partners:

  • Internal training was integrated into the project from the inception, establishing a thorough yet common-sense compliant safety attitude throughout the team.
  • No employee is permitted to work on the project without a full safety refresher.
  • Safety represented a key element of incentive compensation for management and executive personnel.

Customer service. Given the opportunity to visit literally every customer, the success of this project is being judged daily by the manner in which the project team interacts with customers.

  • Every customer is provided with an information package within 15 to 30 days of the meter change.
  • Billing windows are scrupulously avoided through automation tools and integration to CIS in order to eliminate any disruption to the size, look and feel of the customer bill.
  • All customers receive a personal knock at the door before meter change.
  • All life-safety customers are changed by appointment or have positive contact made prior to meter change if they cannot be reached for an appointment

Productivity. Despite Hydro One’s rural footprint – which includes some areas so remote they must be accessed by all-terrain vehicle, boat or snowmobile – the installation teams maintain an average of 39.6 meters per installer-day with a peak of 97 per installer-day. They have achieved this through automation and a phased ramp-up of installers, including training and joint fieldwork with Hydro One’s partners.

IN-HOME CONSERVATION AND DEMAND MANAGEMENT

Testing will soon be underway using third-party devices for residential demand response programs that operate on the mesh network, including two-way realtime monitors, automated thermostats and load control devices. Optimally for customers, meters will serve as the key head-end device, connectable to numerous other devices within the home as illustrated in Figure 2.

While much of this technology is still in its infancy, North America-wide AMI deployments will rapidly accelerate resulting in greatly enhanced customer service opportunities going forward.

LEVERAGING THE SMART NETWORK TO INCREASE UTILITY EFFICIENCY

Hydro One is also looking ahead to applications that will leverage the smart metering communication network to increase the efficiency of its operations. As illustrated in Figure 3, these applications include distribution station monitoring, enhancements to outage management, safety monitoring, mobile work dispatch and work accomplishment, and asset security. All of the above applications have been tested in a proof-of-concept environment, and individual projects are planned to proceed on a business case basis.