rural energy efficiency

More than 900 electric cooperatives in 47 states provide services to almost three-quarters of the landmass of the United States.

These are primarily private, independent, non-profit electric utility businesses, owned by the customers they serve.

With the average poverty rate in co-op service areas (particularly in Appalachia and the Southeast) often higher than the national average, and costs for electricity typically higher per-capita in rural areas, those served by co-ops usually spend a disproportionately higher amount of their income on energy bills.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 4-2018.  You have access to our digital magazine today.

Within this challenge are also opportunities to help members save money on their energy bills. Leading generation and transmission (G&T) organisations and their distribution cooperative members are rethinking how they can support their customers with increased energy efficiency and demand-side management programmes (EE/DSM).

Through effective energy efficiency programmes, co-ops benefit by not having to purchase as much power during peak hours when electricity is most expensive.

Additionally, G&Ts can better manage peak demand spikes without procuring additional generation sources. This translates to lower utility bills and rates for members, which at the end of the day is what every cooperative is seeking to provide.

“Co-ops are looking at the best way to serve their consumers and provide them with a variety of services,” Nelle Hotchkiss of the North Carolina Electric Membership Corp told The Application Voice. “It’s not just about providing electrons anymore.” Programmes struggle from lack of automated administration

In rural America, G&T organisations typically implement and orchestrate energy efficiency programmes with their member cooperatives.

In the past, G&Ts have struggled to gain enough of a critical mass of participation from their co-op members for energy efficiency programmes simply because the legacy systems that track and manage those programmes often reside on cumbersome spreadsheets and other antiquated systems.

These systems require manual operation which is mind-numbingly repetitive, prone to human error and not cost effective.

Signing up families and business owners to participate in EE programmes can also be perceived as tedious by programme administrators at the distribution cooperative. This can leave G&Ts struggling to get programme participation and buy-in from their member co-ops because they think the administration at the local level will be too difficult and time-consuming.

Meanwhile, building reports off these spreadsheets or sharing the data with third-parties is often a time-consuming endeavour and does not lend itself to collaboration. Using these manual entry solutions thus often leads to what’s known as the ‘late-year panic.’ Programme administrators (PAs) of EE and DSM initiatives who manage the programmes on spreadsheets are deprived of an adequate reporting environment to assess the efficacy of the programme in mid-cycle. If the programme is falling short of meeting its goals, the ‘late-year panic’ sets in as PAs rush in an attempt to implement savings to meet year-end goals.

Automated operational management software designed for EE/DSM programmes can give PAs a clear picture in real-time of programme performance and adoption rates.

Pulling reports – on demand, daily, weekly or monthly – allows these organisations to test the health of their programmes throughout the year to ensure each programme meets or exceeds its goals and staves off surprises that might arise. For customized campaigns and programmes, these solutions can be equipped with a variety of standard configurations, while also being customizable and flexible enough to benefit particular and unique customer needs.

When co-op members are forced to use spreadsheets and other obsolete business systems and focus more on data entry and manual reporting than ideating on how to make the programmes more successful and reach more people, these energy efficiency programmes are rendered inefficient. Without an automated, cloud-connected portal where they can see and manipulate everything in one place, it is next to impossible to compare and contrast programmes and determine which ones are the most effective.

However, when G&Ts organise EE/DSM programs via streamlined, cloud-connected technology solutions it encourages collaboration among member co-ops and gives them increased visibility into the G&T’s programme offerings. Furthermore, this greatly reduces the workload for PAs at the G&T level, all the while empowering member co-ops to take ownership of their data through an easy-to-use cloud solution.

Offering more self-service options helps expand the connectivity of members, whether through new broadband or other marketing efforts. Through an integrated solution, the increasingly tech-savvy and connected co-op member can find available programmes as well as complete the application submission process. Self-service tools are vital to the success of multi-member operations, as they reduce the workload on both the member and distribution co-op.

The technological solution

Modern operational management software tools to automate much of the administrative activities of energy efficiency and demand side management programmes are finding
broad adoption, in both metropolitan and rural communities. These organizations are realising up to 75% in improved efficiency and operational savings in their DSM operations, solely through the act of automated systems and secure data storage in the cloud. Additionally, such easily accessible information leads to an increase in collaboration among G&T programme participants without budget increases.

As an example, Dairyland Power Cooperative a Wisconsin G&T with 17 municipal customers and 24-member systems estimated the worker productivity savings on their EE/DSM tracking system alone could cover the cost of the system and its implementation.

Recommendations for selecting a solution

While utilities and energy providers manage their energy-efficiency programmes in a variety of ways, Kevin Andrews at Esource outlines several best practices to follow in selecting the right technology solution.

  • Identify functional specifications and systems integrations early
  • Set clear data management expectations with programme implementers
  • Secure organization buy-in from key decision-makers
  • Engage IT staff early and often

Beyond this, organisations most successful in implementing these solutions do best when they choose a platform that is housed securely in the cloud and is a simple add-on to existing CRM platforms. These systems are not one-off solutions so they can be updated routinely as the industry or organisation develop new measures and best practices.

With no custom software to install, license and update on every computer that needs it, integration into company systems is as simple as logging in on a browser.

Additionally, companies do well to look for EE/DSM solutions that leverage existing data security platforms of larger companies. For systems housed on the Salesforce platform, such as energyOrbit, industry-leading security and data privacy is handled by Salesforce, the platform, to ensure third party providers are up to date with security assessments and certifications.

While some G&Ts and co-ops might think implementing technology solutions for their EE/DSM programmes would require extensive or substantial training, with modern cloud solutions, this is not always the case. The key is to select a software solution that is not only intuitive and simple to use, but also comes supported by a well-designed and comprehensive training programme from the technology provider.

Finally, because G&Ts and their member cooperatives are continually sharing reporting information about the progress of their EE/DSM programs, systems that do best for this market are those that allow for secure collaboration of data and the seamless sharing of reports.

Organizations should look for technology tools that enhance the collaboration experience, rather than hinder it.

Collaboration lies at the core of the cooperative energy model. Today, they have the opportunity to advance this ethos farther into the management of their EE/DSM programmes by implementing technology solutions that help them automatically track, manage and report on their programmes. Considering 60% of the cooperative workforce is nearing retirement age, and the inclination of younger workers to prefer careers where companies have already adopted digital solutions, software implementation for EE/DSM programmes goes beyond meeting programme goals under budget. Such solutions increase an organization’s chances for new employee recruitment and retention.

As the 21st century energy transition continues, automation in tracking and reporting for EE/DSM programmes allows organizations to stay on top of the changing energy landscape and better manage peak demand. For rural communities, where energy costs or poverty rates are higher than average, implementing these digital solutions can result in improved programme participation and increased energy savings for families struggling the most; and free up much-needed income for other household expenses. At the end of the day, it’s about the most effective allocation of resources – this is what efficiency is all about. SEI

About the author

Lance Maxell, Strategic Account Manager at energyOrbit, has accumulated extensive experience in developing strategic cloud solutions for the modern utility, with a specific focus on the electric cooperative and municipal power sectors. He has a passion for finding ways to make ratepayer program and incentive offerings more viable through the use of efficient tracking and engagement methods. Lance holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma and an M.B.A. in Finance from Oklahoma Christian University.