Helping key accounts reduce energy or water consumption, shift load or install renewables can pay handsome dividends to utilities, both in terms of bottom line and goodwill. When a city has ambitious environmental and efficiency goals, as Fort Collins, Colorado, does, providing energy services to large commercial and industrial (C&I) customers can turn them into much needed allies.
Fort Collins adopted a Climate Action Plan in 2015, a roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption below 2005 levels by 2020. The city aims to reduce overall energy consumption by 20 percent from the 2005 baseline, achieve a 20-percent reduction in kBtu per square foot in city facilities and reduce peak demand by 15 percent.
Fort Collins Utilities serves 70,000 meters including 32 key accounts—the top 15 business customers in electricity and water revenues. Fast-growing accounts that are poised to move into the Top 15, customers with large service agreements and businesses that have a strong influence in the community are also considered key accounts. Those customers represent 40 percent of the utility’s annual electricity sales, 30 percent of its total revenue and a big opportunity for significant savings.
Mission in two parts
The savings potential from key accounts is the reason Fort Collins Utilities has offered a business customer program in some form since the 1990s. In its current iteration, two representatives service 15 accounts each, ranging from breweries to manufacturing facilities to a world-class university. “The representatives are in contact with their customers on a nearly daily basis, especially some of the larger partners,” said Customer Accounts Manager Lucas Mouttet.
That might seem excessive at first glance, but there is more to customer service than promoting energy efficiency upgrades and cutting rebate checks. “Their job is to make sure our customers are aware of, and taking full advantage of, our energy efficiency and water programs,” Mouttet said. “But maximizing customer satisfaction is just as important.”
To that end, representatives may discuss contracts and agreements on capacity with a manufacturing facility, water conservation measures with a brewery or building design problems with real estate developers. The key accounts program also ensures that the customer’s voice is treated as integral to achieving the utility’s internal goals, Mouttet added.
Many paths to savings, satisfaction
The program options available to business customers are as varied as the city’s goals are ambitious. Under the umbrella of Efficiency Works, Fort Collins teamed up with Estes Park Light & Power , Longmont Power & Communications , Loveland Water and Power and Platte River Power Authority to provide rebates and technical assistance.
Building owners and design teams in the utility’s territory can participate in the Integrated Design Assistance Program for new construction and major renovation. Project teams set a Target Energy Usage Index early in the project using the Energy Star Target Finder and then design and build to that target.
The industry-specific program allows key account representatives to tailor an efficiency improvement plan that saves money and enhances performance for food service, grocery or office businesses. Food service rebates focus on cooking and ventilation equipment, grocery rebates focus on refrigeration equipment and office rebates focus on computer equipment and control systems.
Fort Collins and Xcel Energy are collaborating on an innovative new program to test the idea of “upstream” rebates for heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems. HVAC wholesalers receive a rebate to stock only high-efficiency systems, and pass that through to consumers so that they end up paying what they would have for the unit if they received the rebate directly.
Lighting upgrades continue to be a popular choice with business customers, large and small. “About 40 percent of our commercial account rebates are issued for lighting upgrades,” Mouttet acknowledged. “With the short payback period, those projects are easy to understand and justify.”
Really big savings
But a 2014 project completed with Anheuser-Busch demonstrates that lighting can be more—a lot more—than just a quick upgrade. The brewer of Budweiser is one of Fort Collins’s largest accounts and an avid participant in its efficiency programs.
This particular project focused on reducing energy use in a 600,000-square foot warehouse. Conventional light bulbs were replaced with LED lamps—light-emitting diodes—and motion sensors were installed. “Now when a forklift rolls across the floor with a pallet, you can see the lights come on in front of it and turn off behind it,” said Mouttet.
The target savings for the project of $113,602 and 2.4 million kilowatt-hours annually will come in part from installing high-efficiency LEDs. The motion sensors deepen the savings by reducing the running time of the lights by 50 percent. The rebate check on the $900,000 project ran into thousands of dollars.
That is a lot of money for a utility to spend on reducing demand, but there are advantages, Mouttet pointed out, particularly for a municipal power provider. It supports the city’s Climate Action Plan, helps keep local businesses healthy and aids in capacity planning. “Efficiency is not a silver bullet,” he acknowledged. “We are having the same kind of conversations as other utilities today. But it continues to be one of the better capital investments.”
What it takes
Utilities hoping to capture the benefits of large C&I efficiency upgrades—including customer satisfaction—must first look at how they approach business efficiency programs. The needs of an Anheuser-Busch differ from the brew pub on the corner, so the skills of a key account representative will be different from those of a business customer service representative.
Small-business representatives, like their residential counterparts, tend to focus more on on-site problem solving, Mouttet observed. “They work with their customers to get an electric bill under control or even go door-to-door during an outage,” he said. “The projects they implement are usually smaller and quickly completed, like installing some new windows, adding insulation or changing out inefficient light bulbs.”
Key account representatives, on the other hand, are often shepherding long-term projects over the course of many months. “Project management skills are critical,” Mouttet insisted. “Neither position requires a technology expert, but key account managers often have to go beyond knowing who to call. They have to be able to figure out how to get a big, complex job finished before the end of the year.”
Both positions call for strong people skills and a collaborative nature, however, because customer service is about facilitating conversations and solving problems, Mouttet stated. “They have to be good at networking, at connecting the right people quickly,” he said.
Likewise, a successful customer service program, whether for large or small customers, must connect the utility—the internal—and the community—the external. Build a strong bond, and both parties will prosper and reach their goals.