Checkup at NC Utility Finds Big Improvements in Technology, Customer Service

PP Daily LogoFrom the December 15, 2015 issue
of Public Power Daily

Originally published December 14, 2015

By Jeannine Anderson
News Editor

In July 2012, Hometown Connections, a utility services subsidiary of the American Public Power Association, conducted a two-day onsite organizational checkup for the city-owned utility in New Bern, North Carolina, that looked at all aspects of the utility’s operations. A similar checkup in July 2015 gave high marks to the New Bern Department of Public Utilities for improvements in technology, customer service and communications.

Among other things, the 44-page report from Hometown Connections noted the city’s progress in implementing an advanced metering infrastructure, or AMI system, as well as the utility’s efforts to streamline its payment policies and to beef up its communications and outreach to customers.

The checkup helped New Bern figure out what the municipal utility was doing well and what could be improved, based on best practices in the industry, said Jon Rynne, director of utilities, and Steve Anderson, Utility Business Office Division manager, in a Dec. 14 interview with Public Power Daily.

The checkup by Hometown Connections “basically gave us a roadmap for what to do,” said Rynne.

Anderson agreed, describing the checkup as a “report card as to what we were doing well,” and on areas for improvement. He noted that the report from Hometown Connections used terms “that could be easily understood by our governing body,” the Board of Aldermen. This can be especially helpful if there are people on the board who are newly elected, or who are not yet familiar with utility matters, Anderson said.

Checkup reinforces decision to move to AMI
The original checkup in 2012 “reinforced our decision to get into AMI,” said Anderson, calling AMI a “huge leap in technology.” The improvements in the utility’s load management system that will be possible with the more advanced meters are expected to have a significant impact on wholesale power supply costs, he said.

Out of the utility’s 21,500 electric meters, 5,000 have been converted to AMI, he said, and the city also has converted 3,000 of its 15,000 water meters to the two-way AMI technology.

By the early summer of 2016, 38 percent of the utility’s service territory should be equipped with the AMI meters, said Rynne.

“Two-way metering will help with outage management, too,” said Rynne. New Bern is in hurricane territory, and the utility expects “tremendous benefits with AMI” in responding to damage after a hurricane or other severe storm, he said.

AMI will let utility offer a prepay program in early 2016
The AMI technology “also has given us the ability to give pre-pay ability to customers,” added Rynne. In January 2016, the utility plans to offer a prepay service, he said, and “without AMI, you can’t do it.”

Customers who opt for the prepay program will not be required to put down a deposit, Anderson noted.

On Dec. 8, Steve VanderMeer of Hometown Connections provided the New Bern Board of Aldermen an overview of the findings of the July 2015 checkup.

Hometown Connections’ final report, issued in October 2015, found that New Bern “has made tremendous advances in its technology since 2012,” citing the municipal utility’s AMI program.

“On the meter reading front, New Bern went from using functional but clearly limited automated meter reading (AMR) technology to AMI technology that should greatly support enhanced customer service and the utility’s reliance on load management to control costs,” Hometown Connections said in its report. “Given the wholesale pricing structure of power supply and the incentives for peak shaving,” it is likely that the paybacks on an AMI system “will be much quicker for New Bern than in other parts of the country.”

Overhaul of customer service payment policy is applauded
“Overall, Hometown Connections is extremely impressed with the improvements that New Bern staff has made to their customer service operations,” said the October report. “We are optimistic that additional changes will continue to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of its customer service operations.”

In New Bern, “a long history of accommodation had led to well over 1,000 of individual payment arrangements each month for customers seeking an extension in their payment deadline,” the report said. As noted in the earlier report, New Bern billing staff were handling between 1,200 and 1,500 payment arrangements every month.

“Although the sentiment behind trying to accommodate customer requests was admirable, the reality was that billing staff was devoting thousands of additional hours each year managing these non-standard payments,” the report said. “Although it is not unusual in Hometown Connections’ experience with public power to encounter some level of special arrangements made for a handful of customers, the magnitude found in New Bern was unprecedented.”

“It is for this reason that the changes that New Bern has enacted in the intervening years are so impressive.  No small amount of planning and execution was required to largely end a practice that had existed for many years and had become for many customers, their standard method of payment. New Bern phased in a series of customer service changes, implementing a plan to reduce the number of payment arrangements from ten per year to four and capping the amount that can be included in the payment arrangement, increasing the late penalties, eliminating door hangers (except for a small number of customers on medical alert), matching reconnection fees to more closely mirror the actual cost of service and revamping its security deposit policy. It also cannot be overemphasized the important role and strong political leadership from the governing board that made this possible.  The pushback from parts of the community was no doubt significant and the politically expedient response would have been to kick the can down the road.  To the board’s credit, it held firm.”

The result of this revamped policy “has been significant, greatly reducing the number of payment arrangements and cutting in half the delinquencies,” the report said.

Community outreach and communications
Hometown Connections said that it “is impressed with the actions being taken to reach the New Bern utility customer and the close relationship between the utility and the city to optimize these customer interactions.”

One recommendation from the earlier checkup was “to find ways of playing a more active role in the local schools,” the report noted. “New Bern, in conjunction with ElectriCities of North Carolina, has recently rolled out an education program for schoolkids teaching them about energy consumption and conservation. Hometown Connections applauds New Bern’s additional commitment to education of school age children.”

Customer service staff also have been “more active in community programming with the launch of New Bern CONNECTS,” the report said. “This initiative includes several programs for customers, most notably the round-up programs allowing customers to add an additional amount to their monthly bill for low income members of the community, and the load management program with financial incentives for customers to install load control devices.  Staff is actively marketing these programs and has seen good growth since their inception.  It is often difficult for customer service representatives to find time to do more than process payments, phone calls and walk-ins, so it is admirable that New Bern has been able to devote this kind of additional time with customers to discuss important program options.”

Utility staff “has also been active in the community, speaking to community service organizations on topics such as the AMI implementation, energy efficiency and the utility in general,” said Hometown Connections in its October report.

“More traditional methods of outreach have also grown, as the utility now publishes three times a year eco@home, providing useful information, tips and updates that foster a stronger understanding of the utility’s operations,” the report said.

The full 44-page report is posted on the New Bern website.

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