Raising the Standard for Customer Engagement

April 1, 2012
Glendale Water & Power invests in customer outreach, gaining early and continuous support for its smart grid project.

In 2011, Glendale Water & Power (GWP) completed installation of more than 120,000 smart electric and water meters, one of the utility's largest projects, which started in 2009. The municipal utility in Glendale was one of the first U.S. utilities to connect and integrate all of its electric and water customers using smart grid technology.

Some of the other firsts included being the first city in the nation to sign a Department of Energy (DOE) grant for US$20 million that helped accelerate the installation of the smart meters and also being one of the highest-ranking utilities by the smart grid maturity model. GWP scored 5s for breaking new ground by having an industry-leading innovation strategy and organizational structure in its smart grid project. These are two of the most important domains to ensure a successful project as measured by the California Energy Commission's Energy Research division.

But, back in 2008, when GWP first introduced its smart grid business plan to the city council, the entire project was expected to take approximately five years. In 2009, the utility applied for and won the DOE grant. Then, in 2010, GWP completed its proof-of-concept phase, testing out 1,000 electric and 500 water meters. Smart meter installation started in late 2010 and was completed by September 2011. GWP expects to be fully functional in all aspects pertaining to the meters, including meter data management, in two years rather than five years.

Keeping Customers Engaged

Customer engagement is an extremely important aspect of any smart grid project. Keeping information flowing to customers, along with engaging and involving them as much as possible, is key to a successfully adopted project. Customer engagement and outreach were a top priority for GWP on its smart meter project. To get customers to be early and continuous supporters of the project, GWP had to educate and inform them of the benefits of the technology and how they, specifically, would benefit from it.

Explaining complicated subject matter such as the smart grid is not an easy thing to do. Customers wondered why GWP needed to modernize the infrastructure; in their minds, everything was working just fine. GWP's first task was to let customers know and understand how the utility had not kept pace with the electric and water industry, and that keeping up with the times was crucial. GWP's aging infrastructure had not changed much in the last 100 years. It was time to implement change and start showing the benefits.

Having learned from the miscommunication mistakes of investor-owned utilities, GWP did not want to make those same mistakes; it wanted customers on board from the get-go. From the beginning, GWP reached out to customers through town hall meetings and direct-mail pieces. The local media also were engaged to cover the project so as to inform and educate customers of what was coming and how the smart meters and smart grid would benefit them.

Every project milestone was publicized. Prior to installations, customers received a letter about the coming installation and why it was necessary. They received brochures and bill inserts on frequently asked questions. GWP gave the city council and commission frequent project status updates. The utility also created a stakeholder advisory committee made up of city residents and business owners who met with the utility on a monthly basis and shared their insight and information on the project, and provided input on outreach materials.

All customer outreach, including the utility's external newsletters, website and social media sites, had a special section devoted to this project with progress constantly being highlighted. GWP also attended every community event sponsored by the city, distributing smart grid educational materials and answering questions. The utility hosted “Coffee in the Park” events on Saturdays and Sundays for six months and invited customers to come and discuss the project and its benefits. The purpose was to go to the customers to engage and educate them on the new technology.

Extensive outreach is a definite must for any utility pursuing a smart grid project, because keeping customers in the know, along with giving them information and progress updates, will help them eventually adopt and adapt to the new technology, and the many changes it will bring them.

A Frame Up

With all of the smart meters now installed and functioning properly, and the data making its way in, customers need to be given the options about how to see their usage. Plus, they need to know how to use the information their new smart meters are providing to help them make wiser energy and water choices.

Glendale is entering the second phase of its smart grid project, which consists of customer-facing programs. The utility is looking into expanding its thermal storage program through a partnership with Ice Energy, future pricing plans, in-home devices and demand-response programs. Giving this power to customers is one of the most beneficial parts of a smart grid system.

Interestingly, an important part of this project came together by chance for GWP when a company approached the utility. At a 2009 conference, CEIVA, a digital-frame producer whose CEO lived in Glendale and worked in Burbank, a neighboring city, asked if its digital frame could work with the smart meters to display usage information inside the home. This was not just any regular digital frame. The frame stores pictures in a cloud and people upload pictures to the frame through a pin number or the Internet. The frame displays the stored pictures.

GWP and CEIVA worked together on installing a ZigBee chip in the frame. GWP is currently piloting the frame with about 50 customers. The frame connects to the smart meter using the ZigBee chip and displays the customer's electric and water usage in near real time. GWP owns five channels out of the 40 on the frame. The five different channels display energy and water usage, information on GWP programs and services, and a city of Glendale channel. The rest of the channels are private customer pictures. After the pilot, GWP plans to provide frames to all customers.

Energy Reporting

GWP also has been piloting Opower's home energy reports with 25,000 customers. These reports include a summary of the customer's home energy usage compared to 100 random homes of the same size within a 2-mile (3.2-km) radius. The report ranks customers on their energy usage and provides information on energy usage over the last two months in graphs so customers see their daily average and when they used the most energy. On the back of each report are customized tips to help customers save energy.

GWP recently expanded this program to cover all customers except those who are on medical equipment discounts. The reports now incorporate smart meter data and give customers a more detailed view of their energy usage, still ranking them and comparing them to 100 random homes of the same size.

Customers also are given access to the Opower home energy report website, where they can go online and see a near-real-time energy comparison, drill down to charts with their energy usage and calculate their next utility bill.

In early 2012, Opower partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Facebook to produce a new social media application customers can join and upload their energy report information and ranking, and create communities to help each other save more by using all the information on their Opower report. GWP and four other utilities across the nation are piloting this program.

Thermal Energy Storage

In the last few years, GWP has partnered with Ice Energy to launch the nation's first cost-effective, utility-scale distributed energy storage project installing Ice Bear units. This project, along with other smart grid projects, will help GWP to continue delivering reliable, competitively priced electric service in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.

The Ice Bear reduces the energy used to cool a building during peak (afternoon) periods. Currently, GWP offers this program to all commercial customers at no cost to building owners. This technology works with existing air conditioners and reduces the energy to cool buildings by 5% or more over the life of the unit.

Additional benefits of this technology are the reduction of carbon fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions. It also provides cooler air to a building than traditional air conditioners, helping building tenants to control their cost and improve their work environment.

The Ice Bear is a proven piece of equipment similar in size and appearance to a building's existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. When connected to the HVAC system, the Ice Bear creates and stores ice at night with an off-peak rate and efficiently delivers that cooling the next day using the same duct work and fan of the current HVAC system. The building is cooled exactly as before but without running the HVAC system's compressor during more expensive and environmentally damaging peak daytime hours. GWP has installed 163 Ice Bears in Glendale and hopes to install 1,000 more as the smart grid project progresses.

The Future

GWP is now looking at an overhaul of all its systems. It is documenting existing system architectures and will propose a road map to achieve the desired endpoint. Software for distribution automation will be selected as part of this process. Distribution automation will take the longest amount of time to complete.

The foremost result of moving toward the smart grid is to give customers new tools to better manage their energy and water use, and make informed choices that would not have been possible with traditional meters. Through future in-home displays and the Internet portal, customers will have access to their usage to help them conserve and participate in different pricing plans that better fit their lifestyles.

Meter reading will be done remotely, and outages and service problems will be pinpointed much faster, allowing quicker service restoration. There are already early examples of how this modernized grid benefits customers. And there will be many more examples as deployments progress.

Glenn Steiger ([email protected]) is general manager and CEO of Glendale Water & Power (GWP). Under his leadership, GWP was the first utility in the nation to receive U.S. Department of Energy stimulus funding for its smart grid initiative and has achieved one of the highest percentages of renewable power within California. He currently serves on the Board of Public Power Inc. (an APPA subsidiary), is president of the Southern California Public Power Authority and is a board member of the Western Electric Coordinating Council.

Smart Grid Maturity Model

Glendale Water & Power's (GWP's) smart grid meter project received the highest customer score of all smaller utilities and among the highest customer scores of all 93 utilities that responded to the Smart Grid Maturity Model (SGMM) survey. The survey was facilitated by the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research division, through a project called Defining the Pathway to California's 2020 Smart Grid for Publicly Owned Utilities.

According to the survey's findings, Glendale achieved the highest maturity level of all utilities surveyed in the areas of strategy, management and regulatory, and organization and structure. GWP's smart grid maturity level is more advanced than most other utilities, and it is a pioneer in developing a corporate-level smart grid strategy. The utility's overall strategy focuses strongly on its customers. These results stem from GWP having laid down a strong foundation for the smart grid project.

The SGMM is a management tool that helps utilities plan smart grid implementation, prioritize options and measure progress. Developed by utilities for utilities, the model is hosted by the Software Engineering Institute as a resource for industry transformation with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy and input from a broad array of stakeholders.

The SGMM measures utilities in eight domains from strategy implementation to societal and environmental responsibility. GWP scored the highest maturity level of 5 for breaking new ground and having an industry-leading innovation in the strategy and organizational structure of its smart grid project — two of the most important domains that will ensure a successful project down the line.

As utilities are underway to modernize their electric grids, they have to strike an appropriate balance between all the hype and the real progress they are making. Findings from the SGMM and Software Engineering Institute can help utilities to determine their progress and where to focus their efforts to achieve their goals.

Companies mentioned:

California Energy Commission | www.energy.ca.gov

CEIVA | www.ceiva.com

Glendale Water & Power www.glendalewaterandpower.com

Ice Energy | www.ice-energy.com

Natural Resources Defense Council | www.nrdc.org

Opower | www.opower.com

Software Engineering Institute | www.sei.cmu.edu

ZigBee | www.zigbee.org

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