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Amid 2020's challenges, how have public power utilities succeeded in providing energy, community service, and& relief to their communities? Share your successes to celebrate Public Power Week.

Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Oct 12, 2020
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Last week was Public Power Week, but at Energy Central we want to keep the conversation and appreciation for public power utilities going strong. As Joy Ditto, CEO of the American Public Power Association, noted in our community last week

Public power utilities are laser-focused on providing reliable, affordable, safe, and environmentally sensitive power to their customers. And they are really good at it. Many of them have been around for more than 100 years, but all of them are proud to keep the lights on for their friends and neighbors. They are also uniquely motivated to listen to what their customers want and especially nimble when it comes to acting on these community desires.

We want to hear more about the unique agility and community-focused capabilities that public power utilities are particularly adept at providing. And given that we're in a year that's thrown curveball after curveball at utilities and their customers, we'd love to focus on the successes you've had at public power utilities for your customers, communities, employees, and operations. 

So in tough times, whether that's from a pandemic or an economic recession or a major storm, what successes have you had as power companies and community providers? How has the public power positioning helped you to deliver those results? We invite you to share a success or two amid this year's challenges below in celebration of Public Power Week.

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I've posted to Energy Central my assessment of public utilities as they stand today, both by their numbers and their character, as well as how they differ from the big there IOUs in the state. These details will be interesting to anyone looking to learn more about Public Power. 

 

California Public Power

As background, the Utilities Commission, City of New Smyrna Beach Florida (UCNSB) was created in 1967 through the passage of Chapter 67-1754, Laws of Florida, Special Acts of 1967. UCNSB provides retail electric, water, wastewater and reclaimed water services within the City of New Smyrna Beach and surrounding areas that include parts of Volusia County and the City of Edgewater.  Our electric service area encompasses 71.9 square miles and at the end of Fiscal Year 2019, the Commission provided service to a total of 28,921 electric customers and 27,404 water customers, and 24,795 reclamation (wastewater & reuse) customers.  Our Vision Statement developed in 2019, as part of a Modernization Strategy, is both a declaration and a challenge of who we want to be and who the community needs us to be.  It is a one sentence proclamation of our overall objectives. UCNSB’s Vision is, to be a community partner with safety as the priority while providing reliable, essential utility services, dedicated to sustainable resources and community stewardship.  Fast forward to February 2020, and we were confronted head on with the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenge to deliver on a number of our Vision’s mandates.  In short, we had to assure our customers’ and community needs were met on 24X7 basis, while at the same time adjusting our operations to protect the continuity of operations, and our employees’ and customers’ health.  Our community, like most areas of the country was impacted immediately with businesses either closing temporarily or adjusting the way they served customers to meet State and local requirements.

In-mid March, we closed our walk-in Customer Service office, while encouraging more customers to utilize online service and electronic payment methods.  However, in keeping with meeting local customer needs, we also moved to serving customers for billing and account needs through expanding the access to our services via three drive through, bank-style lanes in the rear of our headquarters building.   We met needs during this time, and over the next several months our customer metrics changed and improved in several areas; we saw a dramatic increase in electronic payments and average call answering time went from 122 seconds in February to 73 seconds at the end of May. We also temporarily suspended disconnecting customers for non-payment and was not charging late fees for payments received after the due date.   The Commission also voted to approve a temporary reduction in electric bills, by not charging for purchased power for the months of May and June.  This meant a 22% decrease for all customers’ electric bills, or approximately $23 per month less for a residential customer with a 1,000 kilo-watt hour bill.  Over two months, this reduction provided for $1.5Mil in immediate relief to our customers during a time our local economy was definitely impacted.  We were able to quickly enact this, leveraging a purchased power reserve account, which was coincidentally holding a higher-than average balance.  Then in June, along with State and local government reducing restrictions on businesses and seeing some corresponding improvement in the local economy, we began the transition back towards normal billing and collection practices on July 1, 2020.  Between March and early June, we saw a measurable increase in the number of accounts and revenue past due in the greater than 30 days category.  However, in June, we also had Customer Service Representatives begin to work with customers on individual payment plans, allowing up to 6 months to pay amounts in arrears as long as payments were kept current.   This required a great deal of one-on-one coordination with our customers by the Customer Representatives, and by early September, nearly 6 months after the late February impact of COVID-19 to our community, the number of accounts and percent of billed revenue past due returned to pre COVID-19 levels.

Over this same time, from mid-March to September as stated above, we made changes to business operations to assure the safe continuity of operations. We believed the biggest threats to business continuity was having a COVID outbreak that would affect our electric system operations and water/wastewater plant control rooms and large field organizations that directly serve our customers on a daily basis.  A local COVID-19 outbreak impacting any one of those groups could potentially impact our ability to provide critical services to the community. With that in mind leadership implemented shift change procedures to limit the number of employees exposed to each other by staggering start and stop times for the larger field groups, and restricting access to control rooms to only those assigned.  We also adopted procedures to sanitize controls room areas between shifts and had all office areas cleaned and sanitized on a daily basis.  We also developed but did not have to implement shelter in place plans, where provisions were made to keep one or all of these groups in place in our facilities as a means to protect the continuity of our business. Those plans included; food, laundering capabilities and temporary sleeping arrangements.  During the March to August timeframe, UCNSB also held its monthly Commission meetings remotely, and developed improved capabilities for hosting meetings remotely, while upgrading our live streaming to Facebook to allow customers to ask questions and interact during the Commission meeting via Webex.  We also began upgrading I.T. equipment in the main conference rooms across UCNSB’s building campuses, to both encourage use of teleconferencing in lieu of in-person meetings and to improve ease of use.  Like many others, the Utilities Commission also adopted remote working as a practice for all non-mission critical employees in mid-March and kept that in place through Florida’s decision to implement Phase 3 reopening in late September; when restaurants, bars, salons and other businesses were allowed to return to full capacity.  UCNSB also leveraged periodic employee town hall meetings to keep employees abreast of current information, while also giving them a chance to ask questions and provide feedback and input to COVID-19 plans, working conditions and health safety concerns.  As of early October, we have continued to require wearing of masks when social distancing cannot be safely maintained, and daily temperature checks and at this point have not yet reopened our buildings for walk-in customer service and payment services.  The Commission will revisit the decision to reopen our offices to the public when we feel this can be done safely, but in the meantime the aforementioned business arrangements are meeting our customer and community needs along with areas of improvement.

While the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the world and our community around us, the Utilities Commission, City of New Smyrna Beach, Florida acted with speed and agility to assure our employees and the public were kept safe. This was also done while placing a high priority on protecting the continuity of our core electric and water business operations and services.  We modified; safety practices, business operations and the way we interacted with customers, but also assured we met local needs throughout this timeframe.  The Commission also understood the economic impacts presented by the pandemic and during the time of greatest impact; suspended disconnects and late payments and provided a temporary reduction in electric rates.  While we are still on the course of a return towards conducting business in the pre COVID-19 times, we will do so with the same deliberate approach as applied during implementing the above practices. In closing, these are just a few examples of the agility demonstrated by UCNSB in quickly adjusting business operations during an unprecedented time of challenge and concern to our business and the customers we are dedicated to serving.  All these changes, adjustments and improvements were developed and implemented by the leadership team and our employees, and approved where needed by our Commissioners, who are also part of the local community.  I’m sure our story is similar to many other public power utilities, who share the same mission and desire to deliver safe and cost-effective critical utility services to the communities they serve.  It’s what we all do!

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