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Robby McCutcheon, IT Director for the Kerrville Public Utility Board, seeks to give energy customers as much information as possible through their smartphones.
Chris Hayhurst is a contributor to the CDW family of technology magazines.
Chris Hayhurst is a contributor to the CDW family of technology magazines.
As a nonprofit, municipally owned electric company, the Kerrville Public Utility Board operates with a clear mission. “Our job is to serve our community,” says Robby McCutcheon, KPUB IT director. “And that entails being responsive, efficient and delivering electricity at the lowest possible price.”
Owned by the city of Kerrville, Texas, KPUB is responsible for powering the homes and businesses of more than 23,000 customers over an area of 146 square miles. At last check, the utility had nearly 700 miles of power lines.
McCutcheon notes that his work in IT doesn’t usually include interacting with city residents, but he does have a window into that side of the business through a web and mobile application called KPUB SmartHub. Working with a third-party developer — the National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC), a supplier-owned company — the utility launched the app about 10 years ago, primarily to give customers an easy way to pay their bills.
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As a relatively early adopter of mobile technology, the Kerrville Public Utility Board is leading the way among government-run utilities that are using apps to improve citizen services. Recognizing that their customers are increasingly on the go — and looking to ease customer service team workloads by, for example, reducing call center volume — these energy agencies are turning to solutions that typically look a lot like KPUB SmartHub.
For utilities going mobile, these apps have become attractive for their reliability and scalability, but also because they’re easy to get off the ground. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital offerings from utilities, according to McKinsey. In the six months prior to April 2021, “digital adoption grew fastest in the utilities and travel industries, which each jumped 46 percent, as well as in the public sector, which grew 45 percent,” the McKinsey article notes.
Today, KPUB SmartHub is hosted in NISC’s private cloud, but the utility is preparing to migrate the app to Amazon Web Services. McCutcheon’s team set the initial configuration parameters required to integrate the solution with the utility’s customer information and outage management systems and now monitors its functionality to ensure that it’s working as expected.
“Our customers love it once they start using it,” McCutcheon says. “It lets them manage their accounts right from their fingertips.”
Among other things, KPUB customers can use the free app to view invoices, schedule and submit payments, and gather information on how their energy usage varies from month to month or year to year. They can also submit routine service requests (to establish a new connection, for example) and report electricity outages.
“From their smartphone, it’s just a click, and it shows up in our software as a system alert that goes out to the customer service team,” McCutcheon says.
When reporting an outage, he adds, the tool also populates the utility’s outage management system with relevant information, “and that gives our dispatch team everything they need to send someone out to fix it right away.”
Robby McCutcheon IT Director, Kerrville Public Utility Board
“I think utilities have a reputation for being slow-moving and slow to change,” says Jeannette Olko, electric utility division manager with Moreno Valley Utility in Moreno Valley, Calif.
The agency’s mobile app, MyMVU, is a SaaS solution that’s been in place since early 2018. It’s available for the public to download on Apple iOS and Google Android systems.
“Being really small as utilities go, we don’t have the resources we’d need to create something like this by ourselves,” Olko says. “It’s a way for us to be flexible and adaptable — to meet our customers’ expectations and provide the service that they’re looking for.”
Olko estimates the electric-only utility currently serves around 6,500 customers. Ahead of the app’s launch, about five years ago, “we had some pretty lofty goals,” she says.
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At the top of the list was making it easier for customers to pay, but the utility also envisioned a tool that would allow citizens to track energy usage and ask for service to be turned on or off. Also, Olko says, the utility wanted to give their customers easy access to energy-efficiency rebate programs.
“We decided they should be able to do it all from their phone, from filling out the forms to uploading receipts,” she says.
My MVU’s developer supports SaaS resources via Amazon Web Services, IBM Cloud, Microsoft Azure and other partners. The My MVU app provides mobile capabilities to utility customers through the cloud. But MVU continues to seek ways to improve the application further.
“We know that our customer base is fairly tech savvy, and that what they might want from an app is always evolving,” Olko says. “The better we listen to them, the better off we’re going to be.”
Total number of publicly owned utilities providing electricity in the United States
Nicole Brumbaugh knows well the importance of listening to what customers have to say. Brumbaugh manages retail technology, billing and customer care at Nebraska Public Power District, where she has worked for 22 years.
Established in 1970 through the merger of three public Nebraska utilities, NPPD today serves the vast majority of the state’s counties. In 2018, as the utility prepared to update its web portal, the organization’s leaders decided it would be helpful to offer customers a mobile app as well. At the time, they were adding advanced metering infrastructure that would allow the utility to collect usage data remotely, Brumbaugh says.
“With AMI, we knew we’d have access to a lot more information than we ever had before. An app would be a way to share it with our customers, and it would give them another self-service option,” she says.
The new web portal and the mobile app, NPPD On The Go!, both went live in March 2020, and it wasn’t long before Brumbaugh’s team was fielding feedback from happy customers. She was told at the start if they saw a 10 to 15 adoption rate, that would be reason to celebrate — and today, she says, more than 25 percent of the utility’s retail customers regularly use the agency’s app on their smartphones.
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“I guess that tells you we’re doing pretty good — that people actually like it,” Brumbaugh says.
Through the app, NPPD customers can view and pay their bills, report and monitor outages, and post a request to stop or start service. In addition, thanks to AMI, customers have access to interval data showing how their energy usage varies at different times of day or day to day. They also have a direct link to customer support for any issues they might need help with.
Many customers have reported that their favorite feature of the app is how it allows them to set personal notifications, Brumbaugh says.
“They can select how they want to be contacted in different situations,” she says. For some, that might involve receiving automated emails alerting them when their bills are ready, or they might opt for a text message notification the day before a payment is due.
However customers decide to use the app — or whether they use it at all — Brumbaugh says it really doesn’t matter. “What it comes down to is, we’re giving them a choice. We’re putting our service in their hands.”
According to the American Public Power Association, the 10 largest U.S. public power systems ranked by energy generation in 2020 include:
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