Remember when getting that new customer powered was the main issue? How many weeks out were our construction crews and how to deal with customers wanting power yesterday? Those were the good old days; money was rolling in and yearly budgets were more of a joy than they are today.
One thing is for sure, the utility business never stays the same for long and the challenges of today will be the failures or successes of the future. It all depends on making the right decisions to keep us ahead of the curve. Let’s talk about some issues that just might be similar in your operation.
The City of Griffin, Georgia Electric Department serves 16,000 meters with a team of 65 employees spanning operations, engineering, system operations (dispatch) and customer service. The challenges that come to mind immediately are manpower in all aspects of our operation, and how to stay compliant without resources that larger companies have at their fingertips.
Our answer is our municipal organizations, including the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG) and Electric Cities of Georgia (ECG). These two organizations provide us with purchasing power and operational support that we could not afford if we had to staff in house. For us, 51 cities working together reduce costs while providing the added expertise to keep us compliant with regulations and government mandates.
With the economy where it is today, we have had to shift gears from construction without much concern for budgets to system maintenance with scrutinized bottom lines. Today, municipal customers are demanding the same services they could receive from larger utilities. Technology, if viewed correctly, will bring your company into the 21st century and probably save your bottom line. Let me tell you what I mean.
We have completed a system study that consisted of line loss, system information and a host of useful guidelines. Our losses were in the 8 to 9 percent range. For a $45 million revenue utility, you do the math. That’s more than $4 million dollars going out the door annually.
We can better use that money, so we set a plan in motion of system maintenance, automation and new technology to capture lost revenue and reduce expenses. We took our construction budget, rolled it into maintenance, worked with our municipal organizations on automation of our breakers and substations, and began to install a complete AMI (Smart Synch) and OMS system to be completed in two to three years.
All of the above helps our bottom line, from reducing expenses for system maintenance and tree trimming, while sub and field automation reduces lost revenue in outage situations, and new technology captures lost revenue from 30-year-old meters and gives us the data to better plan for system needs. This plan was all based on a four-year payback of savings and added revenue. If you can get past, “I don’t have the money to do this,” and think “You can’t afford not to do it,” four to five years down the road you will be much better off for your efforts.
This all ties directly into reliability, SADI and CADI and keeping the lights on, and we all know how important that is. When the lights stay on it seems that the high summer bills aren’t as controversial, and when the storms come in the customers seem to say, “Wow, our power rarely goes out now.” And don’t forget the added functionality of AMI and outage management.
Another issue we have as a small- to mid-size utility is safety compliance. If you’re like us, you don’t have a safety department or even a safety officer. We depend on ECG to keep us current and in compliance with OSHA 1910.269 and all other regulations. Is that enough? No! A company our size has to create a safety-first culture. That can only be done from top to bottom, side to side and department to department. Everyone has to buy into the mindset that our company wants zero accidents. Your management team has to sell and live this.
Your board and city manager relations are key. Involve your board. Keep them informed, and don’t treat them on a need-to-know basis. You will need their support in the boardroom and on the streets. When they talk to constituents they need present and correct information when they hear complaints. Treat them with the respect they deserve and your challenges will be easier to tackle with their support.
The biggest challenge we face is that we have to offer everything a large investor-owned company does but with less. We don’t have the staff to hand things off to handle. We have to do the math, do the design and stand by our decisions about the roads we deem correct to go down. If we make a mistake we don’t have the revenue streams to absorb the cost.
Here at Griffin our greatest challenges are being met head-on by a great team. Put that team in place in your operation and the rest will follow.
About the Author: William “Bill” Bosch is the electric utility director for the City of Griffin, Georgia.
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