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New Video: KCP&L Automates to Innovate

We’ve been talking about showcasing Kansas City Power & Light’s (KCP&L’s) innovative automation thinking for about a year. Months of meetings and planning. Days of shooting video onsite. Weeks of post-production to get it all just right and here we are. It’s a wrap. If you haven’t seen the video, click here. For more behind-the-scenes details  and photos read on. SOUNDBITE: Twenty years ago, everything was on paper. We were taking phone calls from customers, trying to find those customers on a paper map, seeing if everything was close enough together to group up into [a bigger response]. Today, the system does that for us. Dan Munkers, senior manager, DSO Those fine details: KCP&L has crafted a unique extension to the standard Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system for distribution automation (including fault location analysis) using Oracle Utilities Network Management System (NMS)—and some creative thinking and strategy. This project allows the utility to: Increase visibility without increasing complexity for the operators. Expand efficiency efforts into new urban and rural settings. Use a common interface for multiple systems. Boost operational performance. Integrate more devices and data at scale. Exceed reliability standards. Lower cost. SOUNDBITE:  KCP&L has been a pioneer in the industry on distribution automation since the ‘90s. … We’re excited to apply all the new innovative ideas to our system. Tianling Wu, principal engineer. Operations Technology Group More about KCP&L: Founded in 1882, Kansas City Power & Light has grown into a trusted energy provider and resource. More than 130 years ago, a small group of forward-thinking Kansas Citians believed electricity was more than a novelty. As a result, KCP&L now serves more than 800,000 customers in 47 northwest Missouri and eastern Kansas counties. With a service area of about 18,000 square miles, it takes more than 3,000 miles of transmission lines, 24,000 miles of distribution lines and over 400 substations to deliver power to their customers.  In 2018, KCP&L merged with Westar Energy to bring their customers more savings, sustainable energy and solutions to meet every need. The companies are combining operations, resulting in a stronger regional energy provider. And now you must watch the video. Just click here. 

We’ve been talking about showcasing Kansas City Power & Light’s (KCP&L’s) innovative automation thinking for about a year. Months of meetings and planning. Days of shooting video onsite. Weeks of...

Innovation Insights

Put Down the Raw Water and Turn on the Tap

The raw water trend is all over the news. It’s a top hot thing—drinking unfiltered water straight from a spring (though sometimes diverted through a bottling plant and available in stores for nearly $20 a pop). It’s a trend that would make John Snow roll over in his grave. (No, not “Game of Thrones” Jon Snow. Read on.) The real-life John Snow was the father of a major component of the modern water system as we know it, though perhaps not in a way most people would immediately recognize. But let’s start at the beginning. Humans have been moving water a good long time—since before actual time, really, since what we like to label “prehistory.” Storing and moving water is, in fact, an early sign of civilization (in infrastructure form). Stone was favored originally for the moving. The ancient Greeks invented pressurized piping and indoor plumbing (of sorts). So, for eons we focused on the moving of water, but that’s not the full snapshot anymore with water systems. So, where does Snow come into this evolving water picture? Well, he didn’t have anything to do with moving water, but he had everything to do with making it drinkable (or, as they like to say in the biz, “potable”)—and decidedly less deadly. An English doctor, John Snow made the connection between dirty water and disease during a London cholera outbreak in the 1850s. But, he was honestly making a very educated guess based on observational data hot spots. It wasn’t until Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke showed the world all the stuff floating in water (with the use of the microscope) that we really understood that what looks clean may not be clean. (That deserves repeating today: What looks clean may not be clean.) As that knowledge became more accepted, water utilities started to filter their drinking water and treating their wastewater, and that filtering has saved a lot of lives and prevented any number of disease outbreaks in the last nearly 100 years or more as we refined the systems. Water quality has advanced pretty far since those early days, and we’ve added in chlorination and UV light cleaning practices as well. This field encompasses a whole slew of standards and regulations, such as the Clean Water Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act here in the U.S. and the Drinking Water Directive in Europe, as well as data comparing and contrasting allowable particle ratios and, of course, the rather subjective views on taste. But, in an amazing world John Snow (and, probably, Jon Snow, too) could only dream of, we can drink water straight from the tap in almost any place in the U.S. and Europe. (In fact, Louisville Water, a utility in Kentucky, is so proud of their water quality and taste, they’ve branded it Pure Tap and actively promote doing just that—drinking that water straight from the tap for all events and functions, from family to corporate.) We’ve become so used to this behind-the-scenes filtering and easy-to-use infrastructure that we sometimes forget that note we repeated earlier—that what looks clean may not actually be clean (and that you can’t see microorganisms without the proper lens but they can still make you very sick). So, what sort of items are we cleaning away/clearing out with filtered and purified water treatment in the modern water plant? In simple terms: protozoa, bacteria, viruses, algae, parasites. In scientific terms—the Googling of one of which will make you grateful for real-life John Snow and all who came after for at least a week if not a year— amebiasis, giardiasis, cholera (which was once common in water systems) and E.coli, just to name a handful. (And, yep, you heard that last one correctly: E. coli. So, yes, poop—maybe tiny, tiny particles of poop, but still poop.) We know we’re not the first to tell you that drinking raw water is a bad idea. The Washington Post has weighed the issue. So has The New York Times. In fact, Vox used those exact words—well, they said “drinking untreated water is a very bad idea.” So, they added a “very” to our conclusion. With all that, we realize we’re not going out on a limb here, but we do hope that this particular discussion helps you have a shade more respect for your local water utility and the work they do every day to make what comes out of your tap safe to drink without, usually, the need for a single second thought about it all before you sip. So, put down that raw water and turn on your tap. It’s cleaner … and cheaper, too.   Read more water stories from us: The Best Water Utility Accounts You Should Be Following Right Now How to craft the right data/water balance On tapping pride and laying pipe to the future of the water industry Dear water utilities: does your work and asset management measure up? 5 trending topics in the global water industry 6 words of water wisdom Best practices in customer communication from top American water utilities    

The raw water trend is all over the news. It’s a top hot thing—drinking unfiltered water straight from a spring (though sometimes diverted through a bottling plant and available in stores for nearly...

Customer Care

Seeing “The Princess Bride” as a brilliant customer service tutorial

One '80s flick is practically overflowing with fabulous lessons in behavioral science: “The Princess Bride.” I’ve been a fan of the movie since it hit theaters in 1987. When I was a preteen, it was delightful quote-bait, especially anything that came out of the mouth of Mandy Patinkin’s character Inigo Montoya. As I get older, “The Princess Bride” holds a safe, warm, nostalgic spot for me, and it struck me recently as also brilliantly spot-on with showing and predicting natural human reactions (even if it is a stylized version). That’s behavioral science in a nutshell. Quite simply, it’s the study of how people will react (not how we want people to react or how we hope they will react but how they will actually react). Despite the fact that we’re all human, when we get into groups that are socialized or culture-siloed, we tend to forget our normal human reactions and believe, instead, that people are motivated along that siloed thinking. Companies have, traditionally, been very bad at sinking into siloed thinking and ignoring behavioral science (utilities, too). That is slowly changing. We are pondering more and more about the customer and not just how we want the customer to respond but what motivations are required to create those responses—what nudges, what carrots, what comparisons. Whether you’re putting together a marketing push or a demand response program that relies on residential participation, you need good info on just how your consumers will react. Here are our top three lessons on behavior from “The Princess Bride” (TPB) that you can apply to your program planning and marketing strategy today: 1. Keep it simple: summarize and advise. After my favorite TPB character, Inigo, saves our hero from death, our hero remembers nothing of the previous story. Inigo replies, “Let me explain …. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” And he does. And they go on to win the battle, save the princess and conquer the day. Utilities, you get way too caught up in explaining. You know you do. I have this battle with engineers every day who want to put every number, every dot and every dash into the details. But, with the exception of that engineer mentality, most people don’t want to know every single dull and dreary moment of their power delivery and use. They want the executive overview, the important highlights, the major points. They want the Cliff’s Notes version of their problem, and then they want an answer to it. So, summarize your data points and then jump off from those data points with helpful hints: Turn your AC up two degrees. Run your pool pump at 2 am. Check your refrigerator for efficiency. This is how you become your customer’s trusted energy advisor—the place and space every utility wants to inhabit in the future. It’s not from dumping details in the customers' laps and letting them sort things out. (That’s a way to create a lot of lesson #2.) Being a trusted energy advisor comes from making sense of those numbers for your customers and then helping them find a solution. It’s from you doing the heavy lifting, not them. 2. Remember: anger is, unfortunately, a really, really great motivator. We continue this short list with more Inigo examples. He’s spent 20 years tracking down his father’s killer. He’s dedicated his life to this anger. He’s got speeches ready. He’s got sword-fighting techniques in hand. He’s prepared. Now, your unhappy utility customers—whether annoyed at an outage or confused about billing practices—aren’t going to dedicate their lives to destroying you. Luckily, you’re not dealing with quite that level of upset. But, you have to keep in mind that one unhappy customer will badmouth you more often (and for a longer period of time) than a happy one. Humans like happy, but we tend to dismiss it quickly. Problems and anger fester and settle and make us think more, which makes us touch that moment again and again and again in our minds. True, no matter what you do, you can never be perfect. You’ll always have some negative reactions to deal with, but remember these things when faced with angry consumers:  approach calmly and sympathize. (And we mean truly sympathize. Get into your customer’s head; feel his pain.) Solve the pain point quickly (and do not pass this problem along the chain). Be honest if there’s a problem, and, in the end, talk to that customer like a person and not a number. Finally: apologize. Customer communications is a two-way relationship and an ongoing conversation. Trusted energy advisors know when to say they're sorry. 3. On the positive side: true love never dies. This brings us to the basic plotline of TPB. It’s a love story—one that overcomes odds and clears hurdles from Greenland-native giants to a battle of wits (to the death). That enduring love-conquers-all may be the fairytale inside the book, but the frame of the movie (where the grandfather is reading the story to his sick grandson) is the real lesson, and the real love, in the movie: deep, honored, interconnected and with a long history. (It’s no coincidence that the grandfather says “as you wish” to the grandson when he asks to be read the story again tomorrow, a phrase we learn from the start of the storybook means “I love you.”) This is the love you’re looking for from customers. It’s what all the brand-building is all about, and you can see it with retail customers most clearly: buyers who prefer Nike shoes. Drinkers who opt for Jim Beam. The worldwide adoption of Swatch watches at one time. If you get the love right (and keep the love going), you can become not just a part of the customer’s daily life but a part of how they see themselves. That takes constant work and constant attention, but it can be done. You can become that trusted energy advisor to your customer. Just remember to say to them, constantly: as you wish.   When Oracle Utilities bought Opower, we got our own valuable lessons in behavioral science and customer focus, which is still incorporated into all of the great products in our Opower line. Take a look at how we can help you apply these TPB lessons to your own programs. Get details on self-service, peak management, energy efficiency and proactive alert options for your utility. Lead art courtesy of artist Charnchai via Pixabay. 

One '80s flick is practically overflowing with fabulous lessons in behavioral science: “The Princess Bride.” I’ve been a fan of the movie since it hit theaters in 1987. When I was a preteen, it was...

Innovation Insights

How to be an innovator: The Oracle OpenWorld meta edition

With all the synonyms for innovation at play in tech writing today—transformation, evolution, revolution, change, breakthrough—the one we never hear much is metamorphosis, although I’d say that’s perhaps the most accurate for what we’re experiencing. This is, in fact, a staged, stepped flip we’re all immersed in—a flip from something we once saw as a simple organism to something that’s now complicated and interconnected and a “meta” (or self-referential/self-reflective) form of ecosystem. The classic stages of a metamorphosis (as described mostly with insects but thoroughly skipped over by Kafka entirely) can be best summed up in the traditional butterfly example: egg, larvae, pupa, and, finally, adult. Think of our tech metamorphosis as always seeking to be a better, smarter, faster adult. We’re never happy with the adult we are. Instead, we are constantly changing to become the adult society needs (and expects). To become our next, best adult requires a whole lot of planning, some serious work internally and a willingness to cocoon ourselves in data and details to figure out how to survive the next stage. Data and details are essential to this process—as essential as hormones to the more classic sense of metamorphosis. We’re labeling this #InnovateWithIntent—the idea that you’ve got to pair those details and data with a more scientific approach. But where do you get all this data and all those details? And how do you interpret them with intent? We’d suggest you can get a handle on some of that data and a lot of those details at Oracle’s upcoming OpenWorld conference in San Francisco. (By the way, we’ll be live blogging from the show with examples of that ongoing metamorphosis.)   Here’s a short list of options for utilities sessions: Learn how Oracle Utilities, Accenture and some of our select customer partners envision the new industry future at the opening keynote session on Monday, Oct. 22. Plan your journey to the cloud with Oracle Utilities insiders on Tues., Oct. 23. Look deeper at grid model data management with Oracle Utilities and EPRI on Wednesday, Oct. 24. Explore how to get the most from your Oracle Utilities products with in-depth, hands-on sessions throughout the week, ranging from DSM details to network concepts.   Embrace the metamorphosis with #OOW18. Get general information on show registration and housing here. Can’t come to the conference? Follow all the utility industry details from OpenWorld on this blogsite, or through our Twitter feed.

With all the synonyms for innovation at play in tech writing today—transformation, evolution, revolution, change, breakthrough—the one we never hear much is metamorphosis, although I’d say that’s...

Innovation Insights

How to craft the right water/data balance

We’ve all heard about the energy-water nexus—how energy is required to make water usable and how water is required to make power work. The energy-water nexus is an important one, but it’s not the only nexus in the utilities mix. There’s another that we are beginning to talk about more and more—how much data is increasingly required whether you’re making power or cleaning and moving usable water (or moving gas, too). We’re calling this the utility-data nexus (because we’re not creative enough to find an entirely new name). Two sessions at CS Week influenced our discussion here on a subset of that nexus, the water/data balance, basically that data nexus with an eye on just the water side of utilities—no offense to power or gas utilities intended. Josh Bond, Manager of Business Technology with California Water Service, discussed analytics, efficiency and customer satisfaction in the “New Customer Values Through Smart Analytics” session, while Chad Moore, Supervisor of Customer Care at Las Vegas Valley Water District, examined field work and meter data in the “Improving Accuracy and Reducing Costs with Drive-By Data” session. Both speakers admitted, in different ways, that water may be a few steps behind (when it comes to data) but they’re not out. Yes, power and gas utilities are moving faster when it comes to conquering the big data equation, but water is taking nice steps into the arena and won’t be too far behind at the finish. So, what else did we learn in these chats about water utilities and data? Here’s our short list of takeaways to help you find that balance. Plan for timing: It can take months to pull in all the data you need at the start of any numbers-heavy project. Keep that timeline in mind and understand that it will need to get faster in the future, yes, but it won’t start off in real-time by any means. Don’t forget performance, reliability and security: Those make the foundation of any water utility project. Even as you reach for the cloud and real-time data use, you can’t ignore the basics. Push for new data projects to shift cash: There’s a move from OpEx to CapEx and more and more of these projects are being allowed to clock in on the CapEx side of the equation—a positive trend. Think out of the box: The exciting (and frightening) thing about data-based projects is, many times, there aren’t already established rules and guidelines. It’s a great opportunity to really have new conversations about new ways of making connections. The new mantra: unconventional is good. Clearly define your use cases: Before you get to the development stage, this is positively key. In order to integrate big ideas, you have to start with a smaller scale and pilot things. (And then work toward a point where you can trust the data, but, at the start, verify.) Educate new and shiny data system users: Utility insiders may not be the tech savvy kind. So, establish training to use this data in the ways you want. Don’t just assume they’ll get it automatically. Don’t roll the truck; trust the data: The old mantra of “when it doubt, roll it out” is over (once you’ve got your data to a true trustworthy point). Now, it’s “when it doubt, dig it out”—by delving into the data and working that angle. Accept that the future is in the cloud (and with natural language): Dashboards, trend analysis and nice, clean graphs that explain all the insights that field supervisors need to know are all available in the cloud today. And that will continue, with more and more spoken language/natural language queries—you know, like people already talk, whether those people are your employees or your customers.   Prepare for CS Week 2019 with more conference content: Engagement isn’t just about the customer Tampa Electric’s Nancy Tower offers 10 tidbits on customer culture and engagement PG&E turns direct outreach into a bump in SMB customer happiness Saving the water: Oracle Utilities and utility partners give back Finding synergy: on utility industry trends, analytics and crafting one amazing customer experience

We’ve all heard about the energy-water nexus—how energy is required to make water usable and how water is required to make power work. The energy-water nexus is an important one, but it’s not the only...

Technology and the Cloud

How will your utility weather our new industry future? Our strategist has one word for you

And that one word has options. It can be four (abbreviated) letters, or it can be longer. You’ll find the answer here somewhere. (We’ll even point it out.) But, first, let’s chat a little. We talk a lot, in this industry, about topics and concepts: blockchain, IoT, the shift to the cloud, grid modernization and growing customer demands. And these are all worthy themes to dissect and plan strategy around, for sure. But, there are people behind making blockchain a reality, connecting each bit of technology to smarter devices, smoothing the data flow to that cloud, fixing those interop problems with new grid hardware and thinking ahead to what customers will want tomorrow. It’s time we talked about some of those people pushing those topics and concepts, making them a reality for utilities around the globe from here inside Oracle. And so, the 3Qs blog series was born. For our next 3Qs conversation, we sit down with Mike Ballard, a Utilities Industry Strategist based in Devon in the UK and ask him—as the name of this series hints at—our three big questions.   Question 1: How did you get involved in utility business, and what makes (and keeps) you passionate about it? Ballard: My father was a nuclear engineer, designing power stations in the UK.  During the ’70s and ’80s, we had various materials, diagrams and an amazing old HP 85 computer, which he used to help with his calculations. He would teach me to program, and when I left school, he found me a job as an office administrator in the IT department of his power company. Within 18 months, I went from changing tapes on an IBM mainframe and ordering office suppliers to ordering and installing network servers and PCs (brand new in the ’90s) at the various power stations around the UK. Based almost entirely on my work experience, I got a place at university studying computing.  All my vacation was time spent back at the power stations, earning extra cash. I graduated at the top of my year with First Class Honors and within the year was back in the utility industry, where I remained for most of the next 20 years. I believe the utility and energy industries, globally, have both a unique opportunity, and responsibility, to solve world’s major challenge of securing supply of energy and water that is both affordable and environmentally sustainable.  I believe that technology is a key enabler to meeting this challenge, and I intend to continue playing my part in accelerating innovation in this sector and inspiring others to do the same. (Editor’s note: If you missed it. That was your answer. It’s “technology,” which we prefer in its four-letter “tech” format.)   Question 2: What's the top problem for utilities you work with today, and how do you advise they solve that problem? I am extremely fortunate to spend at least half of my job meeting and sharing with utilities around the world—every size, shape and type.  Delivering a compelling vision of what the industry is doing—and what the utility should be aiming for—is actually pretty straightforward.  Defining the roles of emerging technologies such as CX, IoT, AI and blockchain is more challenging, but a well-structured, comprehensive, real world scenario really helps their understanding and buy-in. However, the biggest problem for utilities, by far, is being unable to realize that vision and to properly leverage those technologies in any meaningful timeframe.  No utility is starting from a blank sheet.  Every start position is different; every market is different. The skills and budgets available are all different. In the most valuable strategy meetings I have with customers and prospects, we spend the last half-hour of our meeting white-boarding their current IT & business landscape and start to bring to life how it may evolve with new solutions and capabilities. (And you know when you have struck a chord when they want to take photos of the result! Sometimes with us all in the picture!) Overall, utilities need to own their own IT and business roadmaps.  Systems integrators will come and go. The utility will remain in place for decades.  So I strongly believe that we in Oracle should be partnering with customers—not just for the initial sale but throughout the delivery and beyond.    Question 3: What's your touchstone--the idea that you keep coming back to--and how do you apply it to what you do every day? Enthusiasm is infectious, and a well-crafted phrase can be devastating! Combine the two, and you can change minds—and change futures, too.   Mike Ballard, Vice President of Industry Strategy for Oracle Utilities, has been with Oracle for five years, coming over from EDF Energy, which happens to be where he met his wife Sally. They live in Devon with their two children Christopher and Emily. Our favorite “fun fact” about Mike: He once tried to drive from the UK to Australia in his Land Rover but was turned back in Pakistan due to military coup.

And that one word has options. It can be four (abbreviated) letters, or it can be longer. You’ll find the answer here somewhere. (We’ll even point it out.) But, first, let’s chat a little. We talk a...

American Gas Magazine April cover story: Take Six

With 4,000 employees, 3 million customers and operations in six states, Southern Company Gas’ recent CIS consolidation across six of its natural gas utilities was a major undertaking. But so are the benefits, from better customer interactions to greater employee satisfaction. A new customer care and billing system could be expected to achieve increased efficiency, lower costs, fewer errors and better customer interactions. But when six of the seven utilities of Southern Company Gas consolidated their customer information systems, the companies also began to see greater satisfaction among employees involved in the customer experience. That satisfaction was evident via increases in both the companies’ promotion rate and employee retention rate. “We did know there would be a change dynamic,” said Sandra Broughton, director of Customer Experience with Southern Company Gas. “Our goal was to not lose people, but we saw that even the rate of natural separations slowed down,” dropping 8 percentage points from the average 20 percent. That unexpected benefit sweetens the already positive results of a three-year project to transition from using two separate CIS’s and an expensive old mainframe to the Oracle Customer Care and Billing system, or CC&B.   GETTING STARTED The transition started in 2014 with a discovery phase and was completed in the last half of 2017. Five Southern Company Gas utilities—Elizabethtown Gas, Virginia Natural Gas, Florida City Gas, Elkton Gas and Chattanooga Gas, affectionately referred to internally as “the AGL5” in reference to the utility’s former name, AGL Resources—successfully consolidated their 11-year-old customer management application system and their 25-year-old Axiom CIS mainframe into the Oracle platform. That platform was already in use by the sixth local distribution company involved, Nicor Gas, which had adopted it in 2006, five years before becoming a Southern Company Gas subsidiary in 2011. Another Southern Company Gas subsidiary, Atlanta Gas Light, was not involved in the consolidation because of the deregulated natural gas market in Georgia. There, customers buy their gas directly from marketers. AGL provides the transportation service, maintains the distribution lines and bills the marketers, creating a need for its own stand-alone CIS. Once the successful transition went live during a three-day period in late August 2017, 900,000 customer accounts migrated to the Oracle system, adding to the 2.2 million accounts already in place with Nicor Gas. As complex as the project was, its goals were simple: to consolidate the field and customer information systems of the utilities in order to operate with greater efficiency, prepare for future growth, standardize and improve business processes, and ease the integration of new technology that might come along in the future.   COMPLEX PROJECT, COMPLEX ISSUES One of the first decisions needed was what CIS to use in order to bring together the differing systems. While the utility did some system exploration, Oracle’s CC&B was an easy choice since Nicor Gas was already using it successfully. “Nicor Gas’ internal experience with supporting CC&B since 2006 was a key factor in our implementation, as well as in handpicking external resources for key functional roles,” said Cindi Reyes, director of IT at Southern Company Gas. Next came the complex task of planning and starting the consolidation with the discovery phase, which began in March 2014. Employees at Nicor Gas and the AGL5 companies already had experience at successfully implementing new technology in-house, from their work establishing call centers in the 1990s and re-insourcing customer service, which had been outsourced to India in 2006. So, project leadership decided to organize and manage the CIS consolidation project with internal resources while ensuring that all locations’ and functions’ concerns were addressed. “We felt like we had the in-house expertise, anchored by Nicor Gas,” Broughton said, “but core team members from various locations and different functions were going to be impacted. From both an IT and business side, they had an equal voice at the table.” As in any major change, the project needed strong communications and change management systems in place to educate and align employees across the enterprise. The objective was to deliver clear, concise and targeted messages to engage Southern Company Gas employees and ensure they understood the changes taking place and when those changes would happen—and to provide training for those whose jobs would be affected. Considering the companies have nearly 4,000 employees, 3 million customers and operate in six states, some complex logistics would be involved. Southern Company Gas is based in Atlanta, but customers and employees of the six utility subsidiaries were located in Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida. But that was just part of the complexity. The age of the legacy system, multiple locations of core project team members, system and licensing constraints, 52 different data systems interfacing with the customer system, changes to customer account data, different regulatory requirements, differences in business processes and competing business initiatives added levels of complexity as well. And, since business must go on, changes and upgrades to other vital projects across the enterprise continued—separate from the CIS consolidation. Obviously, this was no small project. The organization called in more than 350 employees across the enterprise who would become key contributors for the project’s successful planning and execution. The cross-functional core team included staff members from departments including billing, call center, field operations, credit, collections and remittance, finance, resource management, construction operations, corporate communication, utility business systems and IT. One might think that such a large project would be implemented incrementally, with each company adopting the new CC&B system gradually to work through bugs and give people time to get accustomed to the new process. But the project team decided early on that a gradual transition would be more difficult and costly in the long run, deciding instead to “go live” with all the companies over a single weekend. The team divided the project into four phases: discovery, requirements gathering and fit gap, design, and development and testing. To keep everybody on track, the team developed five guiding principles: Understand and limit impacts to work volumes. Understand and limit impact to customers. Keep online performance and batch completion times equivalent to today’s. Understand changes and impacts to interfaces. Continue working as a team to meet project deadlines. The team broke the project up into manageable areas of focus, assigning a team of business, IT and other leaders to each track. After the kickoff in March 2014, the project teams went through the various steps to consolidate and customize the Oracle product to exactly fit their needs, working through 2015 and 2016 to achieve the objective of going live with the new system in the third quarter of 2017. “We conducted weeks of workshops with business partners to analyze unique, complex processes that we could improve through strategic customization,” said Kerry Hogan, director of Meter Reading and Billing for Southern Company Gas. “Identifying these areas for process improvement early on proved to pay off once we went live with our new system.” As the system was built and tested, adjusted and became closer to being ready, the team began working on a plan for the training necessary to teach the employees who would use the new system. “Internal resources were integral in developing the testing scenarios and training documentation. This was essential to meeting tight project deadlines,” said Hogan. The scope of the training included about 1,000 employees who had utilized the old customer management application and/or the Axiom CIS mainframe. The team conducted training on navigation, order processing, billing, meter reading, credit, collections and the new online help tool. Since knowledge retention for such a new program is vital, training classes were done with small groups of 10 to 12 students. The training used a blended style of instructor-led courses, computer-based modules and a “hands-on” environment. The team scheduled intense training to be as close as possible to implementation of the new system. The training team spent about 6,000 hours of development time and over 3,000 hours of classroom facilitation to prepare end users for the all-important “go live.” In all, they delivered 30,000 hours of training. Along with training, the core team established an Ambassador program to support communication and change management surrounding the project. Ambassadors, selected from the business and each LDC, served as communications liaisons. Ambassadors traveled the service areas and conducted quarterly updates to provide new information on the status of the project and the process and terminology changes, and to demonstrate the system as it was being developed. “We formed a team of ambassadors at all locations, established regular meetings to share pertinent and real-time information, and facilitated roadshows across our footprint for executives, super users and impacted employees,” said Hogan. Meanwhile, technology partners, who were assigned or loaned business resources, logged more than 130,000 hours to design, develop and test the new system and its integration with other applications. Dozens of employees were dedicated full-time to support the project, plus scores of people who contributed part-time.   GOING LIVE With nearly 40 months of work and tens of thousands of hours put into the consolidation, anticipation began building for the third weekend in August, when the team decided it would be ready to go live. While employees across the enterprise were kept informed of the consolidation project and state regulators were kept up to speed, the company chose care in talking about the consolidation with customers. “We wanted the implementation for the customers to be seamless,” Broughton explained. “Customers don’t see your internal system, nor do they want to be impacted when you change your system. They want to be able to get their service and pay their bills without any problems.” Company websites informed customers that their ability to interact with the company electronically would be limited during the three-day go-live period of Friday, Aug. 18, through Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. “When we did mention the project to customers, we took the opportunity to let them know the system upgrade would allow us to expand on our billing and payment options,” Hogan added. During the go live, customers could still call in and make service requests, but call center employees handled the requests the old-fashioned way—with a modified manual approach—saving the non-emergency service changes and orders to enter once the new system came up. Perhaps similar to what many gas utilities did during the Y2K flip from 1999 to the year 2000, Southern Company Gas utilities did extensive planning in preparing for the changeover. More than 200 employees staffed nine war rooms around the companies’ service territory, stationing key personnel in IT, business and support roles across project tracks and business functions. The preparation paid off, and four of the war rooms were able to close by day four. As expected, there were some issues. On the first Monday of the new system, customer care center call-handling times for customer service and emergency response were slower than they had been under the old CIS. “But with focused floor support and side-by-side coaching from the ‘war room’ staff, service levels rose from 76 percent on Day 1 to near 90 percent the first week,” Broughton said. “We had little hiccups that needed fixing, but they were not major, by any means. I think we planned, and we delivered.” The companies were thrilled—and relieved—with the success of the consolidation and transition from the old CIS to the CC&B system. But it wasn’t luck or happenstance that made the transition so smooth. It was lots of planning and work. Company leaders credit a high level of leadership and employee engagement at all levels in terms of diagramming the needs, assigning key roles, clarifying roles and assignments as the project progressed, identifying gaps and making organizational changes to fill those gaps. Of course, the business readiness planning, change management, communications planning and the many training sessions and workshops throughout the four-phase project kept people informed and on track. Now, the Southern Company Gas utilities have a consistent CIS across six utilities, enabling shared contact center coverage and reducing contractor support costs. The system is less costly than the two systems in use before, and that old mainframe is being retired after many years of service. Billing, credit, reporting and other direct customer-contact experiences are improved. The project came in on budget and slightly ahead of schedule. But perhaps the most visible proof of the success lies in that satisfaction among employees. “Employees are now more adept and comfortable with remote work teams, collaborating via Skype, video conference and other electronic forums,” Broughton said. “Functional and geographic silos disintegrated with this CIS consolidation.”   This article was the American Gas Magazine cover story for the April 2018 issue of the magazine. Reprinted here with express permission. 

With 4,000 employees, 3 million customers and operations in six states, Southern Company Gas’ recent CIS consolidation across six of its natural gas utilities was a major undertaking. But so are the...

4 notes on innovative grid restoration from 3 utilities

Hurricanes and other extreme weather that blow out masses of power infrastructure in giant sweeps seems to happen in clusters—as if by some serious, if sad, planning. Utilities may go a decade without a hurricane coming only to find two or three hit them in a year with a particularly bad season. Three utility executives—two in the U.S. and one from Europe—sat down on the last day of Oracle Industry Connect 2018 to talk about the storms they’ve weathered (literally) and what they’ve learned from those storms (figuratively). While they all noted that there are no silver bullets to take out the monster of mass outages, they do have some steeped-in-experience advice. Here are the top four tidbits from their conversation: 1. Simplify the restoration process. Those automated items that you rely on during regular weather patterns are going to be overloaded during a big outage event. So, having a streamlined version that you can tap into during a large event could save you tech time, customer satisfaction and employee frustration. Some concepts: During a mass outage, don’t do individual tickets. Do mass ones by geography until post event. Color online maps in regions rather than, again, individual houses and businesses, allowing for a bit more elbow time as you work. 2. Make field communications the top priority. In the everyday world, field services is important but not the top of the hierarchy. When large areas of your geography have no power, your field services people (and the outside crews you bring in to help) are now front-line soldiers in the battle back to civilization. So, give them the best weapons for the fight, and making their ability to be aware—situationally, regionally, tech-wise and team-wise—constant will be the smartest way to get back to the status quo your customer is used to (and that your customer expects). 3. Educate the end customer and your people, too. When? Before a storm hits. Shift messaging from prep for the storm to restoration information, including feasible timing. Train and retrain staff to deal with customer emotions and reactions. And then, during the event, have sympathy. People out of power get upset. That’s natural (and, by the way, they’ll likely now text you or go through your app rather than call). 4. Go superhero with your tech. Smarter outage management systems that focus on both communication with customers and having all those distributed assets talking, too, is key to start this up. It may take some trial and error to get the equation right, but there is no doubt that better, faster, newer is going to help. Give the right tech people the ability to put their right tech into top gear during a storm event, and you will likely find they bring you real-time info, forecast info, outage info in practical ways that you never would have been able to plan for (or thought of asking for). Sit those data scientists in with the GIS peeps and see what they can uncover, for example. After all, the word “innovation” has good connotation for a good reason: You get good results. To quote one of the speakers today, “Innovation drives you toward reliability. They are not mutually exclusive.”   Read more from Oracle Industry Connect 2018: In a New York minute: 2 quick (but important) takeaways from Oracle Industry Connect today Spitballing energy challenges and potential solutions at the speed of light Lessons in customer behavior from PwC and J.D. Power Choice is pushing the utilities industry into an era of customer consciousness On Billy Joel, the New York state of energy and the next Oracle Industry Connect NYPA’s CEO on restoration, reform and REV Passion, progress and practical lessons from New York’s Energy Czar Who is the true New York energy customer? An electric legacy: Con Edison’s Ketschke on his business, his city and his dad

Hurricanes and other extreme weather that blow out masses of power infrastructure in giant sweeps seems to happen in clusters—as if by some serious, if sad, planning. Utilities may go a decade without...

Spitballing energy challenges and potential solutions at the speed of light

Michael Webber is one fast talker—but in a good way. (Maybe even in a great way.) Webber keynoted the energy and water track of the Oracle Industry Connect 2018 conference today, tossing out great jokes and amazing insights in energy, water, oil, gas, electric vehicles and more—pretty much the entire energy/water nexus, as we like to call it. Webber, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin by trade, is also the deputy director of the Energy Institute, Josey Centennial Professor in Resources, and co-director of the Clean Energy Incubator at the Austin Technology Innovator. And all of that can be summed up this way: He’s spent a lot of time thinking about energy, technology and how they make sense together (and where we could, perhaps, use a little more sense in the equation, too). In an amazing fast stream of concepts, Webber name-dropped Rick Smalley (the much revered discoverer of the buckyball); talked water, energy and toilets; rapid-fired consumption and waste data and showed us all what President Trump would look like with a man bun. He even told us a very interesting story involving a tea-kettle created energy spike in demand in Britain tied to the popular soap opera “East Enders.” In other words, he humanized the data behind all this infrastructure we deal with as an industry. Webber centered his discussion, actually, around Smalley’s list of ten “grandest human challenges.” What’s at the top of those varied 10? Take a guess. (Yep. It’s us. It’s energy.) Despite that desperate (and sometimes dire) energy challenge, Webber noted that, in reality, actual energy tech changes very slowly. “The entire modern global economy is running on old technology,” he lamented to the  utility executive audience. Even electric vehicles—something we, as an industry, tend to think of as high-tech and cutting edge—was first thought of in 1839. “It’s like there are no new ideas under the sun in this business,” he added. “But,I hope you have some. And, if you do, let’s get those adopted soon.” With the challenges in mind, Webber offered his solution in the form of an Aesop’s fable—that of the reeds vs. the oak tree. (In an abbreviated summary: the oak is teasing the reeds that they bend and he doesn’t, that they are pushovers and he wasn’t—until a big wind comes along and topples the oak, but the reeds endure.) He likened the energy industry to the ecosystem of that fable—that you need both the reliability of the oak and the flexibility of the reeds. You need power that is a heavy-duty powerhouse and things that can adjust and make up when that powerhouse isn’t as strong as it could be. Webber’s biggest suggested “action item”: switching our industry to a load-following mindset and getting away from our supply-following mindset. And how do we weather the time it takes to make that shift, you ask? We use classics: data, IoT and conservation, of course.    Read more from Oracle Industry Connect 2018: In a New York minute: 2 quick (but important) takeaways from Oracle Industry Connect today Spitballing energy challenges and potential solutions at the speed of light Lessons in customer behavior from PwC and J.D. Power 4 notes on innovative grid restoration from 3 utilities Choice is pushing the utilities industry into an era of customer consciousness On Billy Joel, the New York state of energy and the next Oracle Industry Connect NYPA’s CEO on restoration, reform and REV Passion, progress and practical lessons from New York’s Energy Czar Who is the true New York energy customer? An electric legacy: Con Edison’s Ketschke on his business, his city and his dad  

Michael Webber is one fast talker—but in a good way. (Maybe even in a great way.) Webber keynoted the energy and water track of the Oracle Industry Connect 2018 conference today, tossing out great...

Customer Care

Lessons in customer behavior from PwC and J.D. Power

We talk a lot about customers these days in the utilities industry: what they want, what they need, what they’ll choose, what they’ll run from, what they’ll like six months from now, what they’ll expect from their utility tomorrow (that may not be visible to that utility today). Jim Curtain, a partner with PwC, and Jeff Conklin, Senior Director with J.D. Power, sat down with industry insiders at Oracle Industry Connect today to reveal what they know (from research and studies and outreach) about those utility customer desires. Their top insights: Your customer is going to measure you by others. They’re going to come to you with expectations they learned in retail, in banking, in insurance, in healthcare. Every customer is mobile. Even the customer who doesn’t identify as mobile, doesn’t think of himself as mobile (i.e., doesn’t shop on his phone) is mobile. Your customers who don’t talk to you may wander. If you don’t keep your customers in the conversation, they may be talking to someone else. Customers today expect that you know them. This applies to every transaction. Recognize them by name, know their pain points, know their account history. If you make a customer a promise, keep it. Customers don’t like when a problem occurs, but it’s much, much worse if you’ve told them a timeline or a result that doesn’t happen. Work backwards from the customer. Don’t just talk to them. Listen to what they have to say, and then put it into use, into practice. Customers will give you a grace period (sometimes). If you’ve been consistent on projects and results, customers will be forgiving with a bad situation. But, you have to have started this in a positive space. Your customer judges you on the basics. Reliability and value drive customer needs. They always have. They always will. No matter how you’re applying it. Customers love convenience. So you have to be on all channels, not just the ones easiest for you (and not just the ones most of them use). Be available however a customer wants to talk. Work on your consistent customer message. They want every message across every medium to connect and be consistent. (And the tolerance for differences in channels is declining.) If your customer is aware, your customer is happier. If they know your programs from the details on down, they feel more comfortable and are, essentially, more delighted with you. All customers respond to one phrase. It’s simple, but J.D. Power numbers prove you’ll get a satisfaction boost from those two simple words your mom taught you to say: thank you.     Read more from Oracle Industry Connect 2018: In a New York minute: 2 quick (but important) takeaways from Oracle Industry Connect today Spitballing energy challenges and potential solutions at the speed of light Lessons in customer behavior from PwC and J.D. Power 4 notes on innovative grid restoration from 3 utilities Choice is pushing the utilities industry into an era of customer consciousness On Billy Joel, the New York state of energy and the next Oracle Industry Connect NYPA’s CEO on restoration, reform and REV Passion, progress and practical lessons from New York’s Energy Czar Who is the true New York energy customer? An electric legacy: Con Edison’s Ketschke on his business, his city and his dad    

We talk a lot about customers these days in the utilities industry: what they want, what they need, what they’ll choose, what they’ll run from, what they’ll like six months from now, what they’ll...

Technology

In a New York minute: 2 quick (but important) takeaways from Oracle Industry Connect today

“Go outside. Then look up,” advised Con Edison’s Matt Ketschke to the crowd at the opening general session of Oracle Industry Connect. “Well, OK. Don’t just stop in the middle of the sidewalk. New Yorkers are notoriously in a hurry, and you may get run over. So, go outside. Step to the side. Then look up.” Why? To see all the power in play, all the energy at work in the city that never sleeps, to get a good visual of these details. We found a few details to share ourselves—on energy and innovation in New York—during the first two sessions at Oracle Industry Connect this morning. Here are the two notes you need to know.   1. We’re going faster—but we need to continue to speed things up. “We have always been an industry of evolution; what’s changed is the pace,” Ketschke told the audience of utility executives and industry insiders inside the Hilton Midtown in NYC, noting that the first commercial power plant, Pearl Street Station, is only a few miles down the road. Ketschke and John Rhodes, Chair of the Public Service Commission and Chief Executive Officer, Department of Public Service, both pointed to New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) plan as the state’s attempt to both meet the pace of change and speed up that pace of change to make sure innovators and new market players can dive in more quickly. But Rhodes noted that, yes, it all needs to be done much, much faster. “We’re trying to figure out how to build the most effective and efficient energy delivery system for the future,” he added. “We have to be able to accommodate the speed of innovative business. We’re not fast enough yet.”   2. Innovation is found outside of the traditional culture box we’re used to, and we need to be OK with that. “The space to allow potential failure and, therefore, learning is huge,” said Marisa Uchin, Vice President of Global Regulatory Affairs at Oracle, noting that new systems and thinking such as REV is opening doors to let this traditionally risk-adverse industry really evolve from doing. But, that new thinking isn’t available across-the-board, and pockets like New York are just that right now: pockets. There are still gaps. “There’s an extreme silo with most utilities,” added Matthias Kurwig, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer at Enervee. “Figuring out how to bridge things, cross budgets, is key.” “Radical innovation often doesn’t fit an RFP,” noted Lawrence Orsini, Chief Executive Officer of LO3 Energy. Orsini agreed with Kurwig that it can be difficult to make these new ideas and new concepts work within those old silos and budget structures. But both added that the problems with those silos and culture boxes are starting to become quite obvious. And, to quote Don Henley (and reference point #1): In a New York minute, everything can change.   Read more from Oracle Industry Connect 2018: In a New York minute: 2 quick (but important) takeaways from Oracle Industry Connect today Spitballing energy challenges and potential solutions at the speed of light Lessons in customer behavior from PwC and J.D. Power 4 notes on innovative grid restoration from 3 utilities Choice is pushing the utilities industry into an era of customer consciousness On Billy Joel, the New York state of energy and the next Oracle Industry Connect NYPA’s CEO on restoration, reform and REV Passion, progress and practical lessons from New York’s Energy Czar Who is the true New York energy customer? An electric legacy: Con Edison’s Ketschke on his business, his city and his dad  

“Go outside. Then look up,” advised Con Edison’s Matt Ketschke to the crowd at the opening general session of Oracle Industry Connect. “Well, OK. Don’t just stop in the middle of the sidewalk. New...

Customer Care

Your thinking, your customers and your grid, too: looking for tomorrow in today

Tomorrow is so yesterday. We’ve been talking about the future for so long, surely we must be knee-deep in it by now. But the problem with tomorrow is this: It’s always in flux. It always needs planning for. It always need another look at strategy before it all comes rushing into today. For today’s utility looking to get a handle on tomorrow, knowing what to plan for (and how) can be a conundrum. There’s a wealth of items to tackle and a plethora of information to wade through. So, let’s cut to the chase. We simplified your tomorrow down to three main areas: thinking, customers and the grid. Here’s what you need to own, develop, get and craft in those three areas to make your utility’s tomorrow a rosy one.   Tomorrow’s thinking today When it comes to utility strategy, there’s always been a struggle between reliability needs and the concepts of new business and new models. We’ve been mulling: Are we forward-thinking new market visionaries ready to shed the core, or are we back-to-basics hardware hoarders who still think first about SAIFI?  But, good news, that battle is over—because it cannot be won. To truly innovate for tomorrow, you must consider both what’s coming and what you need today. So, neither new business nor core business can come out the winner. It is not more important that you develop new customer products than it is for you to maintain clear rights-of-way, and it’s not more important that you invest in transformers than it is to invest in customer analytics. You must maintain your core business; you must also look to new business offerings. Neither surpasses the other, even though, as an industry, we’ve been wrestling with which to put on top of the pile for years.  In this way, innovation requires even-handed, two-fold planning. But, how do you balance this dual thinking and make it a part of your future self? Here’s your innovation strategy to do list (from our recent Utility Innovation Blueprint study with Navigant): Own the two-fold approach. This doesn’t mean switch back and forth when you have changes in executive thought, cash flow or priorities. This means keeping both in mind in every moment. Outage response shouldn’t derail new product thinking, and you can’t neglect infrastructure for the next uber-cool customer app. Develop a foundation with established processes. To help make that two-fold approach second nature, you’ll need to put in place markers that help you evaluate accountability and risk, as well as let you track progress. It’s going to feel terribly unnatural for a while, but that will change quicker than you think it will. Get on the tech train. Whatever you want to do—whatever you need to do—to make your business thrive is available in the market today. Dive deep into your system. Know the details, especially the problems. Then find the right solution, whether that solution comes as SaaS or cloud or a new sensor or two. Craft a culture shift. This is a sea change. Walking away from the hardware vs. software, infrastructure vs. analysis, today vs. tomorrow environment we’ve established will be difficult. But the right executive sponsorships and those already processes should help you take that shift one baby step at a time.   Tomorrow’s customer today Let’s talk about the prosumer. You know the prosumer—even if you may not personally know a prosumer. The prosumer isn’t passive. She wants unprecedented info, numbers and communication options with her electric supplier. The prosumer is that neighbor at the end of your street who wants to know her own energy consumption numbers—and know she’s beating energy consumption numbers for every other household on that block. The prosumer is that millennial calling you once a week asking questions about when you’ll pay more attention to clean energy and how he might be able to get in on the ground floor of that. So, how do you know just what that coming prosumer—that future customer—wants? Here’s your customer contentment to do list (from the SECC’s 2018 State of the Consumer report): Own the conversation. Waiting until asked is old-school. Proactively initiating a dialogue on just what that prosumer wants from you is how you make sure you’re on track for the future. (But, while you should definitely make the effort at that first contact, don’t forget to listen when they respond—actively listen, as our grade school teachers would say.) Develop other relationships. The prosumer may be the one pushing you today, but other customers will become more and more energy-involved tomorrow. Use what you learn from those already-engaged prosumer conversations to find common ground with other customer segments, too. Get in the “all channels” game. Some people want to talk to you in person, some on the phone. Others want email options or mobile or even chat bots. Some want a “people factor,” and some would prefer to avoid people altogether. Don’t neglect any communication channel, even if one is much more heavily trafficked than the rest. Craft a bill that opens doors. Always start with the basics of bill payment, but remember that this bill is sometimes the single communication you will have with your customer that month. It’s a delicate balance to offer the options that customers want to see in a way that’s simple and not overwhelming. But it can be done and done well. (It has been done and done well, in fact.)   Tomorrow’s grid today Tomorrow’s tech is innovative. Tomorrow’s customer is savvy, and tomorrow’s grid is distributed, with energy resources reaching out to the customer edge of things. (That’s where most of the innovation will happen across the board, really.) While many inside the utilities’ industry today see distributed energy resources (DER) more as a way to keep those prosumer customers happy than a serious energy option, it has the ability to benefit more than the customer. DER saves money on grid management costs, and it’s certainly cheaper for a grid operator to pull generation from DER rather than dispatchable resources. Plus, customer-owned DER can be used as a demand response source. But, how do you create the right environment to allow DER to flourish (but not get away from you)? Here’s your DER to do list (from field research and customer conversations): Own your customer-driven grid planning. It’s a fact: customers are initiating today’s energy demand, and utilities need detailed information about their assets. So, constant communication will be key. Develop deep visibility into your grid resources. Marry customer information about DER assets with grid intelligence, and you can understand every nuance involved in the perfect performance of the grid. Get real-time awareness of asset performance. Utility assets have to perform at their optimally to deliver energy reliably, and you’ll need customer asset performance information as well to get a grasp on equipment issues. Craft agile field work and resolution. This will help smooth both DER penetration into your grid and customer expectations about your grid and that new, shiny DER. ​ We sat down and turned our favorite new tech dream, The Cloud, into your next comic book superhero obsession. (The Avengers ain’t got nothing on us.) Read the first issue here: 

Tomorrow is so yesterday. We’ve been talking about the future for so long, surely we must be knee-deep in it by now. But the problem with tomorrow is this: It’s always in flux. It always needs planning...

Innovation Insights

SaaS is your next innovation enabler

Fact #1: Utilities, like most businesses, need multiple back-office IT systems from CIS to MDM to ERP. Fact #2: These IT systems are typically deployed on-premise with necessary customizations to meet each utility’s unique business processes.  Most of them are replaced every 7-10 years, with each replacement being a major internal project that could last 1-3 years. Thus, at any given time, chances are pretty darn good that a utility’s IT staff is nearly completely consumed working on a mission-critical backend infrastructure project that involves upgrading or replacing a major back-office system. The disruptor of those facts: The energy industry, even in highly regulated markets, is increasingly facing competition from new players with disruptive business models selling directly to its customers. Thus, utilities are under a constant pressure to innovate in order defend the business. And a utility’s IT department is a huge differentiator in bringing these innovations to reality. The problem behind those facts and that disruptor:  IT is now being pulled in two different directions. First, there’s the need to keep mission-critical systems updated, secure, humming along with high reliability and predictability. (That’s Fact #2 at work.) On the other hand, there’s the need for quick agile innovations to prove out new business ideas. (That’s the disruptor in play.) With only so much time and utility manpower available, there is an inherent conflict between the two. In the end, the need to keep core business systems running almost always wins. This traditional-over-tactical victory often leads to utilities outsourcing their innovation projects.  And, as a result, a lot of innovation in the industry is happening at the startup level rather than within utilities themselves. These startups are typically “born in the cloud,” consuming cloud-based SaaS services internally in order to be lean and efficient (but also developing SaaS software, which is then deployed by the utility). The underlying question to all of this: Why is that utilities with large capital outlays are not able to organically innovate when startups with small budgets & borrowed capital are able to?    The answer to that question: Almost all resources at a startup are productive resources that directly contribute to creating new products and services. Most of the supporting services are either automated internally or are SAAS services procured from other SAAS vendors, freeing up the internal resources to doing the productive work. (In other words, they’re not bogged down by those Fact #2 responsibilities.) Which leads us here: So how can utilities bring innovation back in house? Free up bandwidth. How? By minimizing the time it takes to keep existing on-premise systems running. This typically means choosing configuration over customization of COTS applications and  minimizing or eliminating bespoke software (unless it is a significant business differentiator). This translates to deploying standard software with minimal or no customizations.  And deploying standard non-customized software is a SaaS sweet spot. (In fact, the business case for on-premise deployment is increasingly becoming harder and harder for all but a few niche cases.) So, SaaS allows that return to innovation and an increase in bandwidth to focus on the new and the now. You could even say SaaS can make the average utility into its own startup. Moving to a SaaS solution  brings in a host of benefits which all work together, creating room for innovation. The rundown: How SaaS can make your utility think like a startup. Automating the mundane everyday: SaaS providers automate the process of applying routine patches and upgrades of new releases across the software stack, allowing that old majority of time taken by IT to be freed up for innovation projects. (Bonus: Since missed security patches and typos during hand-configuring software create headline-grabbing security breaches, automation avoids many of these issues as well.) Keeping up with the latest thinking: SaaS software continuously evolves by adding new features and functionality in quick iterations since the automation factor makes it relatively cheap to test and deploy. Eyeing the investment involved: Most SaaS software is metered--meaning you pay for only what you use. There’s no need to over-provision. You can easily scale up or scale down the hardware resources as your business needs dictate. Having on-demand elasticity without having to overbuild/over-provision the capacity is one of the biggest selling points of any cloud offering. Looking attractive to the right people:  Legacy/propriety custom software drives away talent.  It is always hard to hire developers you can maintain and grow using legacy technology. (No one wants to work on an old project and a siloed system that gives them little chance to make real change or learn new things.) SaaS leverages modern software tools and practices, attracting talent which, in turn, drives innovation. (Bonus: Innovative projects attracts ever more talent, creating a positive cycle!)   The final result of that facts/disruptor battle: SaaS takes away the grunt work of maintaining and running your routine back-office IT systems, while simultaneously enforcing good IT practices. And you get more bandwidth to boot. You just have to choose configuration over customization. Take advantage of SaaS to bring innovation back in-house. The bottom line: Flip the switch and outsource the task of babysitting your infrastructure, not your innovation.   We sat down and turned our favorite new tech dream, The Cloud, into your next comic book superhero obsession. (The Avengers ain’t got nothing on us.) Read the first issue here: 

Fact #1: Utilities, like most businesses, need multiple back-office IT systems from CIS to MDM to ERP. Fact #2: These IT systems are typically deployed on-premise with necessary customizations to meet...

Customer Care

Choice is pushing the utilities industry into an era of customer consciousness

The energy consumer ain’t what he used to be. But, then again, neither is the energy industry. What used to be static is now constant flux. What used to be about infrastructure and hardware is now about customers and software. The future isn’t now in our industry. The future was yesterday, and tomorrow is a whole other eon with a brand new energy consumer: one who is tech-savvy and questioning. “Technologies are giving consumers different choices these days,” said Lawrence Orsini, CEO of LO3 Energy and a panelist at our upcoming Oracle Industry Connect conference in NYC this April. To Orsini, that new consumer is why the industry is seeing all this change—or at least one of the main reasons. “Consumers are driving this shift by recognizing that they have choice, which is what is starting to shift the existing paradigm,” he added. “We’ve been ratepayers; we’ve been obligated to pay what the utility decides and when the utility decides we should. Those days are coming to an end. People and communities are recognizing that, through tech, they have new options and new choices. They don’t want cheap; they don’t want free. They just want choice.” But Orsini pointed out that, really, these changes have been seen before in other industries: retail, hospitality, even healthcare. But the most parallel evolution is likely telecom, where taking the phone off the wall changed the world. The utilities industry is facing a similar shift; it’s just not about phones. It’s about meters. “We’re going to take the meter off the wall and there will be different services and different choices and there will be new markets, and that new customer will be happy,” Orsini added. When those new consumers meet that new market, the utilities industry won’t be solely about their traditional electricity, gas, water delivery businesses. Instead, there will be a new layer: services. And once everyone—from customers to utility execs to regulators—finally see the benefits of these services, that new eon of utilities will “take off like a rocket,” according to Orsini. Those new markets to make for happier new consumers will likely have one interesting and innovative element at their core that Orsini, especially, is well-versed in: blockchain. (Full disclosure: Orsini and I have talked about blockchain before in my previous life as an industry editor. You can read our first discussion on the topic here.) Orsini’s company is leading the Brooklyn Microgrid project, a peer-to-peer solar exchange built on blockchain that allows local residents to augment their own power (or buy, sell, trade extra energy to others). But, he warns that, despite its real potential, most of what we’re seeing around the industry these days is just hype. While, yes, blockchain is revolutionary, it’s still new and still evolving. (And there still aren’t a lot of real uses for blockchain in the utilities industry in play just yet. The Brooklyn Microgrid is often cited as the only one really up and running in the U.S.) “The real movement is aligned with accessing, securing and making permissible data,” he noted. “Putting a fake cryptocurrency in the middle of a transaction—between the producer and the consumer of a kilowatt hour—is selling snake oil. And you’ll know pretty quickly who’s selling that snake oil. They’re fresh, new MBAs walking into utility offices and saying, ‘We’re coming to change your business model,’ and you’ll think, ‘Kid, you don’t even understand my business model. You don’t know the business. You don’t know the industry. You don’t know the regulatory issues. And you don’t know how I make money.’” Orsini estimates the blockchain hype around 60% of the chatter in the industry today, but he stressed that this will change. The hype will give way to reality, as that new eon of energy progresses. Despite his own group’s project in Brooklyn, however, he doesn’t think real cross-the-board, flip-the-switch change will happen in the U.S. first. He points to a country dealing with more immediate problems and needing more immediate solutions as the first point of change, especially in the areas where blockchain works best (transactive energy). And that country? Australia. The U.S. timeframe Orsini envisions is about the seven-year mark from now when we see consumers really driving changes in regulation. Until that time of real transactive change, though, there’s always the unique lessons from Orsini’s Brooklyn Microgrid and other programs opened up under the NY REV processes.  “I’ve talked to regulators all over the globe,” he said. “They all have strong interest in what’s happening here. This regulatory evolution is slow, but it’s still head and shoulders above the rest.” As we make that transition to more interactive, transactive energy, Orsini already has a list of lessons utilities can apply right now to make that move easier going forward: Look to the grid-edge first, rather than focusing on the grid center. Talk to regulators—and keep on talking—about changing the old thinking about capital and compensation. Don’t be all in. You don’t need to own it all anymore. It’s time to invest in co-investment.   Learn more from Orsini at Oracle Industry Connect this April. Along with other New York state/REV players, he’ll dive deeper into the NY energy scene in our NY State of Energy panel session. Request an invitation to the conference right here.   Read more from this series:  On Billy Joel, the New York state of energy and the next Oracle Industry Connect  NYPA’s CEO on restoration, reform and REV Passion, progress and practical lessons from New York’s Energy Czar Who is the true New York energy customer? An electric legacy: Con Edison’s Ketschke on his business, his city and his dad    

The energy consumer ain’t what he used to be. But, then again, neither is the energy industry. What used to be static is now constant flux. What used to be about infrastructure and hardware is now...

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Our former utility CIO reveals a bit of your new energy future

We talk a lot, in this industry, about topics and concepts: blockchain, IoT, the shift to the cloud, grid modernization and growing customer demands. And these are all worthy themes to dissect and plan strategy around, for sure. But, there are people behind making blockchain a reality, connecting each bit of technology to smarter devices, smoothing the data flow to that cloud, fixing those interop problems with new grid hardware and thinking ahead to what customers will want tomorrow. It’s time we talked about some of those people pushing those topics and concepts, making them a reality for utilities around the globe from here inside Oracle. And so, the 3Qs blog series was born. For our inaugural 3Qs conversation, we sit down with Martin Dunlea, a Utilities Industry Strategist based in Dublin and ask him—as the name of this series hints at—three big questions.   How did you get involved in utility business, and what makes (and keeps) you passionate about it? Dunlea: Having qualified as an engineer, my first involvement with the utilities industry was the early implementation of a GIS-based network management and modelling system. It gave me a great insight into how technology could be used to manage the unique challenges facing utilities in the design, operation and support of linear assets. I then spent a number of year supporting a number of large network and infrastructure projects before taking up the position of CIO with a gas and electricity utility. I’ve now been with Oracle Utilities for 9 years. As an industry, utilities are experiencing unprecedented challenges, some as a result of advances in technology and operational efficiencies. But it is the amount of external factors, influences and changes that are most challenging and continue to make it an incredibly interesting and innovative industry to work in. It would have been difficult 20 years ago to envisage how advances in renewable energies, connected technologies and advanced analytics could combine to fundamentally change the traditional energy delivery model. What we know for certain is that as technologies and solutions continue to mature, the final chapter on the future state of the utility business is far from complete.   What's your touchstone—the idea that you keep coming back to in this field—and how do you apply it to what you do every day?  Dunlea: One idea I find fascinating is the progressive move towards self-power and the prospect that, in the future, off grid energy solutions will be a reality. Storage prices are dropping dramatically and with a growing demand for electric vehicles (EVs) and residential based solar panels, storage can now be deployed both on the grid or at an individual consumer’s home or business. This means that the idea of combining solar with storage to enable households to make and consume their own power on demand instead of exporting power to the grid is beginning to be a realistic option for customers. This evolution towards consumer-managed “closed-loop energy systems” is an exciting development that has financial benefits for end users and significant challenges for the energy industry, which can expect even more disruption to the traditional business model and existing revenue streams. If electricity prices continue to increase, then the momentum towards partial grid defection will only increase as well. And that presents more challenges for energy companies.   What's the top problem for utilities you work with today, and how do you advise they solve that problem? Dunlea: Over the next 12 months, the biggest challenges for power and utility companies will be to build a comprehensive customer experience, drive operational efficiency and excellence, and embrace big data opportunities. But rather than look on these as discreet, unrelated challenges, utilities would do well to embrace new technologies that can interpret consumption data, empower customers to manage their service and help utilities companies reshape their business models and their relationship with customers. In the short term, the most immediate challenge for utilities is how quickly the traditional business model of distribution network management is changing into something dramatically different. Consumers are turning to cheaper distributed energy generated from rooftop solar panels, wind turbines and diesel generators. A smart approach to these emerging business challenges that includes an effective data analytics strategy is essential to making the most of DERs and guaranteeing users a reliable energy supply. It provides utilities with dynamic, real-time data on flow conditions across the network to help them better manage the integration of distributed energy sources. Finally, if utility companies embrace these operational changes, they will gain greater visibility into, and control over, the distributed energy resources that are increasingly being used in today’s energy market. From there, they can drive benefits for both prosumers and themselves.

We talk a lot, in this industry, about topics and concepts: blockchain, IoT, the shift to the cloud, grid modernization and growing customer demands. And these are all worthy themes to dissect and...

Deciphering India’s theft problem: 4 solutions and 1 very shiny gem

When I think about the massive, beautiful power of electricity and the massive, beautiful country of India, it always brings to mind the Syamantaka Mani—the classic story of the sun god’s jewel. Of course, any good sun god—any good god in general, for that matter—would have massive, beautiful things: homes atop mountains, chariots that circle the sky. But, in this case, Surya’s jewel was so massive and so beautiful that it created the stunning light and radiance that came with the god’s every step. And that jewel had additional powers as well. It was said that whomever possessed it would be prosperous and would be able to ward off any natural disaster. That’s where its connection to electricity comes into play for me, for what does electricity do but allow for industry and culture (making things prosperous both financially and emotionally) and help keep us warm when it’s too cold and cool when it’s too hot (and, thereby, warding off a little natural disaster or two)? There’s a second connection between the Surya’s favorite necklace and electricity, though, and that’s theft. After all, anything both massive and beautiful, both able to bring prosperity and ward off a little weather—well, that’s a thing to have, even if you don’t own it and didn’t pay for it. The sun god’s jewel was pilfered most famously by a lion (though later recovered); electricity in India has, as far as I know, never been stolen by the local fauna, but it is stolen—a lot. According to a number of academic sources, in fact, India rates the highest for electricity theft in the world, with annual estimates ranging from $10 billion (U.S.) to $16.2 billion (U.S.). This mainly impacts the distribution end of the system, of course, because that’s the side of the electric “gem” that people can physically touch. That means that distribution companies (or DISCOMs, as they are often called in the region) bear the brunt of the loss—both monetarily with lower income in the coffers and physically when something burns out, burns up or takes down a bit of tech in the attempt. Like the tale of Surya’s jewel, though, the story of electricity theft in India isn’t a new one. Still, even if it is an old problem, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a bevy of newly found, new tech solutions to help DISCOMs (whether private of government-owned) tackle the issue.  Here are four of our favorites: 1.) Get the community involved. Private DISCOM Tata Power is using the age-old method of community activists to walk local areas, knock on doors and get the word out about paying bills and respecting company property and equipment. Bringing someone from the area into the DISCOM fold to act as a bridge between company and culture is a low-cost, high-touch, low-tech way to change the mindset behind widespread electricity theft. 2.) Get those cables underground. The simplest—though, yes, likely most expensive—solution to the theft problem doesn’t take activists. It takes shovels—big, huge shovels. If you can get those wires and cables out of sight and out of reach, you can make a real difference in the amount of power theft you see. This idea has been a huge one for Prime Minister Modi, with a year-long burial effort paying off in losses dropping from 45% to less than 10% in spots. 3.) Get that tech in the game. Activists to change patterns are a good long-term strategy, and burials are a good short-term one (though not always physically feasible). To complement both efforts—and fill in the gaps—DISCOMs should turn to the evolution of modern tech and software solutions, from AMI to automation to analytics. A better eye on the system overall means a better overview of problem areas (and granular data details that can help push responses from reactive to proactive). 4.) Get into an innovator’s mindset (and stay there). Having the right patterns and the right tech means having the right tools. But, putting those tools to use to solve issues like loss prevention takes new thinking—about keeping things reliable, functioning and functional, as well as laying foundations for a future where India isn’t topping the list in electricity theft. This means crafting a new utility culture that both honors the traditional and opens doors to new worlds. It’s a difficult balance, but it’s a balance that’s absolutely necessary for the new utility—a business where that shining electric jewel belongs to both the company and the community.   To get a more in-depth handle on this dual thinking in #4, download our partner study with Navigant, the Utility Innovation Blueprint: How to Manage the Challenge of Dual Innovation, available for free here. To review a few Oracle Utilities’ products and solutions to help you tackle #3, just click here.  

When I think about the massive, beautiful power of electricity and the massive, beautiful country of India, it always brings to mind the Syamantaka Mani—the classic story of the sun god’s jewel. Of...