Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats give homeowners unprecedented opportunity to control their energy use, and Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) has now created a program that rewards customers for sharing that control with the utility.
Different kind of demand response Residential customers who have installed, or who plan to install, Nest thermostats™ are eligible to enroll in “Nest Rush Hour Rewards.” They receive a $100 credit on their electric bill for enrolling in the program and an additional $20 credit annually.
On certain days in May through October, when demand for electricity is high, OPPD may declare a Rush Hour event during which Nest adjusts participants’ air conditioning through their thermostats. This can occur for up to four hours, between noon and 9 p.m. Participants generally have two hours’ notice before the event, giving Nest time to pre-cool the home. OPPD may schedule critical Rush Hour events in an emergency, where customers would receive a 10-minute notice.
Customers don’t need to be home to turn down their heating or cooling and if they get uncomfortable during the Rush Hour, they are able to adjust their home temperature remotely.
Automation makes it easy Nest Rush Hour Rewards is a partnership between the smart-thermostat manufacturer and energy providers. By teaming up with Nest, utilities gain a tool for lowering demand while helping consumers get the most value from their investment.
The OPPD request for proposals (RFP) for a smart-thermostat program called for a cost-effective, easy-to-use unit that had high acceptance in the marketplace. Jay Anderson, project director for OPPD’s Power Forward Initiative, noted that Nest best matched the RFP’s criteria. “We will consider other thermostats as we learn from operating the program,” he said.
Nest is among the most popular interactive thermostats on the market today. It can learn homeowners’ behaviors, keep the house comfortable and save money on energy bills. Homeowners can adjust their heating and cooling systems remotely and allow their power providers to do the same.
Part of big picture The Thermostat Program is part of a broader initiative OPPD launched with the goal of reducing demand by 300 megawatts (MW) by 2023. “Reducing our need for electricity, when demand is at its highest, helps reduce our need to purchase electricity or build a new power plant,” said Anderson. “And that helps keep costs down for all of OPPD’s customers.”
OPPD is not relying on smart thermostats alone to achieve such an ambitious goal. The initiative encompasses programs that tackle commercial and industrial, as well as residential loads. The utility’s Cool Smart program currently controls 60 MW of residential air conditioning, not including the Nest thermostat™ program. Cool Smart participants must cancel their enrollment in that program before signing up for Nest Rush Hour Rewards. “The two programs use different strategies to curtail the same load, so there are no additional savings to be gained from participating in both,” Anderson explained.
The Thermostat Program and Cool Smart are the only residential demand response programs that OPPD offers at this time. But the “bring-your-own-device” model for Rush Hour may prove to be a way OPPD can adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace. “This allows us to see what customers are interested in and add new technology to our efficiency programs as it makes sense,” said Anderson.
Smart technology offers many potential benefits to the consumer who is willing to try something new. Omaha Public Power District, a smart utility, is discovering it can share in those benefits by rewarding its customers’ pioneering spirit.
The latest Green Power Partnership update on renewable energy use by businesses, government facilities and educational institutions shows the importance of partners in meeting clean power goals. Western customers—and Western itself—figure prominently on the quarterly list released April 25.
There are now 764 Green Power Partners using renewable energy to meet 100 percent of their U.S. organizationwide electricity use. That is a lot of green kilowatt-hours (kWh)—16 billion annually—to keep the lights on and the equipment humming. The list of power providers needed to supply all that clean electricity is a long one and there are several familiar names on it.
DIY spreading As equipment and installation costs drop, many organizations are adding renewable energy systems on their own facilities. Omaha, Nebraska-based Morrissey Engineering supplements its green power purchase from OPPD with on-site generation. The city of Durango, Colorado, has partnered with LPEA on community solar gardens.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory generates 20 percent of its electricity on-site with solar panels. The remaining 80 percent comes from Western and private renewable energy companies.
Other notable achievements Western customers appeared in the ranking not just as providers but as partners. The University of Utah came in at number 86 in the overall Top 100 Green Power Partners, and was number 14 in the Top 30 colleges and universities.
Los Angeles World Airports, served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, ranked 23rd among local government green power users. Sustainability pioneer CPAU was number 28 on that list.
Long-term power contracts, for five years or longer, play an important role in growing the renewable energy market. BD, a global medical technology company, signed a 20-year purchase power agreement with Nebraska Public Power District for more than 120,000,000 kWh of wind power.
Western customers go above and beyond to provide their consumers with the products and services they need, including cleaner, greener electricity. We look forward to seeing their names become a growing presence on future Green Power Partnership lists.
The 17th annual study ranked utilities based on customer satisfaction by size and region. Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) rated highest in the Midwest Midsize category. Salt River Project (SRP) in Arizona outperformed other utilities in the Large West category and Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) excelled in the West Midsize category. OPPD and SRP also ranked highest in last year’s study, the only two among the eight power providers to repeat their appearance on the list.
The other five electric utilities with highly satisfied business customers are:
Con Edison (East Large)
Met-Ed (East Midsize)
Ameren Missouri (Midwest Large)
Entergy Arkansas (South Large)
JEA (South Midsize)
Except for JEA, based in Jacksonville, Florida, these are all investor-owned utilities. “The public power utilities that have won the J.D. Power honors all exemplify this excellence in customer service,” said Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association (APPA).
Focused on sustainability
OPPD works with more than 45,000 commercial and industrial (C&I) customers to help them improve energy efficiency and develop new renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and biomass. In an interview with APPA for Public Power Daily, Jim Krist, OPPD manager of key account sales and service, pointed to a heightened interest among business customers in sustainability and driving their own energy choices. “The customer continues to change the way we think, operate and serve,” he said.
OPPD has 10 account executives dedicated to servicing the utility’s largest C&I customers. These customers receive annual energy reviews and work with the utility on economic development issues. OPPD account executives and electric service designers consult with business customers on demand-side management programs to help them reduce energy demand and receive rebates.
Even a brief power outage can cost a business thousands of dollars—or worse—so providing timely, accurate information about outages and quickly restoring electric service strongly affects a utility’s rating.
SRP has introduced online and mobile-friendly apps to provide detailed power outage information to businesses, and to send power outage notifications and weather alerts to customers via email and text. Every business customer who contacts SRP to report an outage receives a follow-up call by the next business day. The utility uses the opportunity to educate them on how to use online outage map and reporting tools.
This aggressive approach has paid off in significant increases in the satisfaction scores. “And our customers are telling us how much they appreciate this proactive outreach,” Jennie King, the utility’s director of strategic energy management, told APPA.
SRP’s robust portfolio of 20 energy-efficiency programs is another reason the utility has ranked first in the West by J.D. Power for three consecutive years. Program offerings range from low- to no-cost options for limited-income residential customers to comprehensive programs for industrial clients.
Expanding customer engagement Taking the proactive approach for keeping in touch with business customers figures heavily in SMUD’s business customer service strategy, too. Account representatives serve as trusted energy advisors to their assigned business customers, matching various utility programs with the specific needs of their clients. The Sacramento utility has 67,000 contract accounts representing the 32,000 businesses in its service territory. Last year, the utility decided to ramp up its outreach by putting a C&I customer strategic plan in place. A staff training program aimed at engaging more business customers was a key part of the plan.
Rob Lechner, manager of SMUD’s commercial and industrial account solutions team, said the five-person team now averages 150 face-to-face meetings per week. Team members spend much of their time in the field, visiting the customers and getting to know them. The customer representatives bring a list of questions to in-depth sit-down meetings that might last more than an hour, Lechner explained. “We want customers to be our partners,” he said, and the first step is to understand those customers.
J.D. Power, a marketing information services firm, annually measures satisfaction among business customers of 102 targeted U.S. electric utilities that serve more than 25,000 business customers. The survey rates for overall satisfaction, calculated on a 1,000-point scale across six factors (in order of importance): power quality and reliability; corporate citizenship; price; billing and payment; communications; and customer service.
The 2016 results show overall satisfaction among electric utility business customers to be at its highest level in eight years, driven mainly by communications, corporate citizenship and price. John Hazen, director of energy practice at J.D. Power, observed that communication and corporate citizenship are important to businesses. “Business customers like to see their provider giving back, whether it’s through charities and civic organizations or through economic development such as buying locally and creating jobs,” he said.
Western congratulates Omaha Public Power District, Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Salt River Project for recognizing what their business customers want and delivering it.
When the customers of Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) talk, the utility listens. More specifically, before making a big move regarding its future, the utility first sought out the opinion of its customer-owners.
The OPPD board of directors recently approved a proactive plan that dramatically reshapes the utility’s future generation portfolio by retiring three of the oldest coal-fired generating units at its North Omaha Station. The plan is intended to position the utility for compliance with future government regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while preserving its ability to meet customer demand for electricity.
The decision was preceded by an extensive public outreach process, the first of its kind—but not the last—for OPPD. “Our customers have let us know that they want more of a voice in major decisions, especially those involving our coal plants and pending environmental legislation,” explained Senior Media Specialist Mike Jones. “We will definitely be using the process again to make decisions on issues like renewable energy and rate changes.”
Best-laid plan Retiring the three units at North Omaha by 2016 will significantly reduce emissions and bring OPPD into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. The two remaining generating units will remain on coal but be retrofitted with additional emission controls, and, by 2023, be converted to natural gas. Under the plan, Nebraska City Station Unit 1 will also be retrofitted in 2016.
The plan also calls for the district to reduce its load by 300 megawatts (MW) through customer participation in demand side management (DSM), a strategy that has strong customer support. “The level of interest in DSM and energy-efficiency programs may have been the biggest surprise of the stakeholder process,” Jones observed. “Our customers said they like the programs OPPD already offers but they want to see us do more, including offering more incentives and providing more education on how customers can save energy.”
Customers made it clear during the stakeholder process that they understood changes to comply with new environmental regulations could lead to higher energy costs. The approved measure is projected to cost customers somewhere between zero to two percent over a 20-year period, well within ratepayers’ comfort zone. OPPD President Gary Gates expressed confidence that the plan carries forward the district’s commitment to affordability, reliability and environmental sensitivity. “It also continues to provide a diverse generation portfolio, which customers also said was important to them,” he said.
Building the perfect process Resource planning is hard enough, and actively engaging consumers in the process adds a layer of difficulty. It took time and extensive planning for OPPD to design a public outreach process that gave customers the voice they wanted in the board’s ultimate decision.
In late 2012, the board tasked the corporate communications and marketing department, led by Division Manager Lisa Olson, with organizing the stakeholder process. “It was an organization-wide effort because the decisions being made were going to have such a wide-reaching effect, on OPPD staff as well as its customers,” said Jones.
Starting with community and advocacy groups that had already approached OPPD about wanting a public process, the outreach team invited the public to a series of 10 open house meetings. Announcements appeared in local newspapers, the OPPD newsletter, on the website and in the district’s social media forums. OPPD sent news releases to local media and made representatives available for interviews. The outreach team also attended community events where they could talk to customers who might not be aware of the upcoming meetings. “If you can think of an avenue of communication, we used it,” Jones recalled. “The most important piece of advice for utilities launching their own public process is to keep the message in front of your customers. Do whatever it takes to encourage their participation.”
The meetings began in February and were held at venues throughout OPPD territory. Representatives also attended community meetings and meetings of nonprofit organizations. Turnouts ran the gamut from a dozen or so attendees to as many as 50, as did the level of engagement. Groups like the Sierra Club and Nebraska Wildlife had definite opinions they wanted to share, while many individual customers just wanted to learn more. “There were people who just wanted to let us know that they didn’t want a lot of change,” Jones noted. “It was critical to the process that everyone who participated felt like we were listening.”
Customers who were unable to make it to one of the meetings could share their input on a website, OPPDListens.com. Launched in March, OPPDListens functioned as an online meeting, walking visitors through the issues and options and letting them leave their own comments. About 500 to 600 visitors left comments on the website.
In addition to having an online forum, OPPD customers were randomly selected for a series of focus groups set up by the consulting firm Market Strategies International. Participants from the residential and commercial sectors weighed in on the implications of future generation options and portfolios.
Working with engineering consultant Black & Veatch, OPPD compiled the results from the meetings, the website and the focus groups into a preliminary report it presented to customers in April. The goal, according to Jones, was to make the process as transparent as possible. “We wanted customers to see what their neighbors were saying and to understand that, whatever the final decision was, they were driving it,” he said.
The outreach team culled the top five options customers preferred and presented a report to the board. It was up to OPPD management to reconcile the board’s concerns with the customer preferences, and release the final recommendations in May.
Positive outcome At the end of the careful process, OPPD had a plan that gives the utility the flexibility to balance customers’ concern for the environment with their need for reliable, affordable power. The utility also had another tool for getting customer buy-in on major decisions in the future. “All in all, we are pretty happy with the stakeholder process,” Jones acknowledged. “We may do some fine tuning, but it worked as we hoped.”
The key to that success, he added, is sincerity. “When you give people the chance to say what is on their minds, you have to take it seriously,” Jones said. “If they think it is just for show, you will lose their trust.”
But then, Omaha Public Power District has already established its reputation for being in touch with its customer-owners, and it showed in the input received during the public process. “It turns out that the board and the customers are pretty much on the same page about the direction OPPD needs to go,” observed Jones. “That is gratifying to know. You can be going down a path that you think is what your customers want and find out that you are out of touch with them. That was not the case this time.”
Presented by the Rocky Mountain Electric League (RMEL), the conference agenda targets professionals in electricity generation and transmission, as well as those who work in sustainable energy programs. Speakers will discuss renewable energy, such as wind, solar and biomass, and cover regulatory and policy issues.
Kicking off the program is a panel on Utility-Owned vs. Purchase Power Agreements. Ron Rebenitsch of Basin Electric Power Cooperative and Dan Brickley of SRP will join Greg Greenwood of Westar Energy to explore the pros and cons of engaging in purchase power agreements and/or owning renewables.
Luke O’Dwyer, also of SRP, will talk about the challenges of interconnecting renewable generator systems. His presentation will cover reliability studies, construction timing, equipment and design changes and interconnection queue management.
Other presentations will cover wind forecasting for load management, demand-side management, system regulation, storage and more. Attendees will receive a continuing education certificate from RMEL worth 6.0 Professional Development Hours.
The Denver Marriott South at Park Meadows provides the location and lodging for the conference. Register today, and reserve your room.