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Hurricanes, heat waves, and a pandemic – the need for customer-centric grid modernization

This article first appeared in Powergrid International

It seems so distant now, a world where millions crowded highways and congregated in office buildings and schools. This was a time when a short power outage at home would have minimal impact beyond resetting the oven clock. This separation gave utilities more flexibility in how they addressed restoration and maintenance work. With COVID-19, work, school and virtual social lives now tightly orbit living rooms and dining rooms. When Hurricane Isaias caused sustained outages on the East Coast and a heat wave prompted short rolling outages in California, customers were less tolerant of the service interruptions in the first place and how long it took to resolve. With everyone at home, even with similar reliability performance to the past, in terms of frequency and duration, the reality and perception of disruptions is very different. We saw extensive news coverage in the Tri-State area and customers in California requesting a pause to wildfire mitigation work during the pandemic. This combination of pandemic and natural disasters puts new pressure on grid modernization and resiliency efforts. Perhaps more importantly, it has shone a bright light on how utilities engage and communicate with their customers outside of blue-sky conditions.

This is a new reality – the onslaught of extreme weather has been relentless and generally accepted to get worse; the variable manifestations of COVID-19 make the global recovery more uncertain; and many large companies have announced continued work from home policies through mid-2021, with a high likelihood of continuing further into the future. This begs the question: how can utilities respond to this shift in customer base and incorporate these new volatile conditions as part of their longer-term grid modernization efforts?

The answer is clear: utilities should embrace a customer-centric grid modernization strategy that has both near term tactical changes and also longer-term structural adjustments to the strategic planning process.

Create a Conscious and Proactive Customer Experience

In the near term, create a conscious and proactive customer experience that fosters your most important relationships. These are trying times for many people and customer service teams should be making near term tactical changes (if not already). There is a special need for customers who are financially impacted by the pandemic. 

Ensure that existing assistance programs are being promoted through appropriate social media channels and community agency networks. A recent study by DEFG, a research and advisory firm, showed that only 25% of customers are aware of programs. Now might be a good chance to explore process and program adjustments that can increase uptake. Regulators might also be more supportive of programs where hurdles existed in the past, such as pre-pay programs. 

Even those customers who are not struggling financially will have a different sensitivity to their bills in these times, especially as heat waves have hit various parts of the country in the last few weeks. Arcadia projected residential customer’s bill would increase 10% this summer. With higher bills, customers are looking for more transparency and control over their usage. For example, recent Reduce Your Use days at SDG&E had rates up to four times higher during peak times, which came out to $1.12 per kWh. By putting in place and promoting tools where customers can analyze their own use, they can make relevant adjustments to consumption where possible.

This is also an opportunity to review customer-centricity. A communication baseline needs to be established during blue sky conditions. Ensure you are meeting customers where they expect to receive information, e.g. apps, text, social media. Redundancy needs to be built into infrastructure and teams, for example an outsourced call center that is not susceptible to the same weather patterns and can be scaled up if there is an expected surge in calls, such as after a huge storm. Especially during COVID-19, prompt and accurate communication is of even greater importance. Manage expectations before an event and provide updates during and afterwards.

Looking inwards, utilities also need to be cognizant of the wellbeing of customer support staff as they continue to work from home. As moratoriums on customer disconnections end, staff may become more stressed as they handle these difficult calls in isolation. Ensure that proper processes are in place for handling escalations and offering appropriate support.

Push for Mid-Term IT and OT Integration and Updates

Recent heat waves, storms, and catastrophic fires have shown that there is an impetus to look at how utility systems and data work together, and how IT and OT can be integrated to improve the quality and reliability of the power provided. Make the right information available to customer service representatives during outage events and restorage response. This is particularly true as customer service representatives (CSR) continue to work from home and are not physically co-located with their managers who have access to these systems. By making this information available the utility ensures that CSR’s have more answers than what the customer can find on their own.

Next, consider revisiting dispatch and response models for outage events. Compared to commercial or industrial customers, residential endpoints can be spread out over larger service territories. Restoration models have to adapt in order to restore service as quickly as possible with appropriate staffing models to deal with diverse traffic and distance challenges.

Much of this is dependent on laying a solid data foundation, where customer and grid data are properly managed with strong governance structures. This means cleaning existing data and have procedures in place to ensure data continues to be accurate. On the grid side, this includes accurate historical outage data for prediction and updating asset data in GIS as network updates are made. On the customer side, this includes running campaigns to update e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers, for example through account page pop-ups or having CSR’s validate this information during calls. If a customer reports an outage via an established texting system, that information needs to make its way to the OMS accurately. Data issues are only magnified during a storm and waste investments in communications. 

Revisit the Grid Modernization Strategy and Utility Operating Models

As critical as these near and mid-term activities are to a frictionless customer experience, utilities should also look to the future and revisit grid modernization, resiliency, and asset management strategic planning processes. 

This is the time to ask big questions. Starting with the end in mind – what outcomes are customers seeking. Given the long planning horizon, how can the utility influence those technology trends in the next 10 to 15 years? Thinking about the customer will also make it easier to make a case to the regulators when adopting new technologies. For example, looking at the distribution grid and the shift in load to the residential customer base, would it make sense to consider undergrounding options in certain neighborhoods and other methods to increase residential redundancy? Looking at distributed generation, how can microgrids, solar and storage be applied? What will customers expect for their EV batteries going forward? Do customers want to participate in a generator loan program? We can also look at enhancing existing smart grid investments to build or boost capabilities to isolate and self-restore certain parts of the grid before customers are materially impacted. Resiliency will be a new main driver of customer satisfaction and creative solutions are needed to minimize disruptions.

While utilities look at long-term strategies, they should also consider their current operating model and determine if it is well suited to this new reality and future end state. It’s time to ensure the right people with the right skillset and tools are in the right organization to see this new strategy through. Practically speaking, utilities have traditionally been siloed, with separation between the customer and the infrastructure groups. The new operating model will need to look at how people are organized and rethink how the entire strategic planning process aligns goals to be more customer centric.

A Sustained New Normal

The pandemic has and will continue to affect how people rely on electricity. Customers are also looking at utilities with greater scrutiny. But this presents a learning experience to create a more sustained way of working and take advantage of the improved policies and programs that have been put in place. This year drives home the need for greater collaboration across the organization, so that grid modernization activities are aligned with customer outcomes and ultimately work towards enhancing the utility’s most important relationship: the customer. 

Lili Gao is an Energy and Utilities Customer Experience Expert at PA Consulting. Michael Sullivan is an Energy and Utilities Expert at PA Consulting. Gregg Edeson is the Utility Reliability Lead at PA Consulting and ReliabilityOne® Program Director.

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