William Bell

Driving Change Using Analytics, Part 2

Dialogue with William Bell at CenterPoint Energy, Utility Analytics Institute’s (UAI) 2017 Analytics Ambassador Award Winner

UAI: When we first met back at Utility Analytics Week 2011, you were handing out “I support analytics” badges. What’s the story behind those badges?

Bell: We were heading into an election year, and I said to myself, “By golly, I support analytics, so let's get people to wear these things.” It heightened interest in analytics. People loved it. Analytics is a sales job. My boss at the time, Kenny Mercado, senior vice president of CenterPoint Energy’s Electric Operations, told me to “Sell, sell, sell. Sell your products, get people interested, and sell some more.”

UAI: How important is executive support and organizational buy-in to analytics success?

Bell: Extremely. If you have an analytics practice, institutional resistance to change is a constant. It is a battle we fight every day. People get comfortable doing things the way that they have always done them. I’m starting to see things change with the retirement of long-term utility employees. For example, many of our revenue protection agents are leaving. The leader of that group recognizes that she's got to use data to do the job, given the loss of the gut feel that comes with experience. Similarly, a seasoned lineman who's become a supervisor and has worked on the same circuits for 20 years knows where to look to find a problem. That institutional knowledge is rapidly leaving. Analytics can help new field resources identify the most likely source of a problem.

UAI: There has been a lot of interest lately in analytics organizational models – and which approach is optimal. What are your thoughts on the best organizational model to enable analytics success?

Bell: When we started, we used a centralized model. A small, agile analytics team with its own budget and mission reported to the president of electric operations. We were told to “Go forth and do.” We were able to define hypotheses, iterate, quickly abandon efforts not proving out, focus on the best ideas, and deliver real value.

Leading companies in other industries have centralized analytics departments that liaise with client groups to address business needs and report to the CEO. That is a best practice approach in my view. These companies view data as a strategic asset. As EPRI correctly noted, the most important utility assets are not in the field but in the data generated by those assets.

Our group was later pulled back into technology operations (IT) and out of the business. Our focus is now on how to make our data more usable for clients, system implementations, and data storage rather than on rapid delivery of analytics. Unfortunately, the group is now seen as a part of IT overhead instead of a cherished partner and that has slowed our progress.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to decentralize analytics. While you may have isolated successes, you miss out on the benefits of a strong, consistent and cohesive methodology. People tend to revert back to doing business the same old way, and innovation is stymied.

UAI: What do you see in your utility analytics crystal ball?

Bell: In the next one to two years, we will continue to see interest in analytics. That interest will grow even faster, partly driven by the pace of other industries. Millennials will start caring more about the price of electricity, how it is delivered and how we communicate with them because it impacts them financially. My oldest son talks about switching utilities frequently to get a better rate (Texas is a competitive market). His wife is very tech savvy and says “I want an electronic bill and I want them to communicate with me the way I want to be communicated with, and if they're not doing it, I've got a problem.” Utilities, especially integrated utilities, must realize the importance of using their data to improve customer service and enhance the customer relationship.

Within the next three to five years, the Internet-of-Things (IoT) will absolutely be a reality. As it is, field crews do everything on iPhones and Androids today. Young people that are joining the field workforce grew up with this technology. Mobile devices will soon turn into easy-to-use wearable devices. Other industries are using robotics and while I don't foresee a robotic field worker, we can let the field resources know what they need to do in a given situation. If a field worker can take on 50 jobs instead of 20, then we've made the job easier to do and reduced operating costs.

If mutual assistance resources and contractors can be quickly equipped to work effectively in our service area, we've enhanced our ability to recover from a storm. After Superstorm Sandy, I remember conversations at UAI events with other utilities about how hard the regulators were on them. Analytics can improve the industry’s ability to respond.

The adoption of disruptive technologies—batteries, solar, wind, the electric vehicles, etc. can be expected to grow even here in Houston where I am currently able to get a plan at 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour. The new generation buying electricity wants options. My daughter said that she's going to have a solar house. She's 20. I asked, “why?” She said I want to be able to disconnect from the grid whenever I want to. 

UAI:  If you could offer advice to fellow utility leaders, what would it be?

Bell: Data is just data until you make it meaningful. If you make it meaningful, it will drive business success. Utilities need to embrace that. I recommend using an agile, rapid development approach.

Data correlation is where the magic happens. One of the greatest silver lines ever discovered is in Leadville, Colorado. They failed to realize that the blackish, foul smelling rock they were throwing away was silver because they were looking for lead.

Open your eyes, see the value in the data and correlate data to make your business better. The possibilities are endless. It’s a matter of choice. We've proven it. My recommendation is to realize that your data is your most important asset, and use it.

The Utility Analytics Institute (UAI) is a corporate membership-based organization consisting of more than 110 operating utility companies and leading analytics solution providers. UAI’s mission is to enable its members to realize desired business outcomes using data analytics. CenterPoint Energy is a long-standing member and highly valued UAI member.

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