An Interview with James Sheppard

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Please start by telling us something about yourself.

James Sheppard

I have been in this industry for 38 years. I graduated from the University of Houston with a BSc, and started in field services doing metering work. I am now the director of business processes.

And please give a brief history and current overview of your utility.

CenterPoint Energy has gone through a lot of different names. The electric company started in the 1880s, but has changed structures along the way.

We are an investor-owned utility participating in electricity transmission and distribution. CenterPoint Energy also does natural gas transmission and distribution in six states. We have 5.5 million gas and electric customers – in Houston alone there are 3.1 million customers.

How has electric deregulation impacted your utility and your customers?
Prior to deregulation, we were an integrated utility company directly serving end-use consumers in the usual utility ways. Following deregulation, our electric business was separated into three companies – retail, generation and a transmission and distribution wires service company. Metering remained with the transmission and distribution company, which is now a part of CenterPoint Energy and is still regulated. The retail companies competing in CenterPoint Energy’s electric service area became CenterPoint Energy’s customers. The end-customer belongs to the retailers.  

Discussions with electric consumers are restricted, and are the domain of their retailer. This was a huge change in moving to deregulation after a long career working with consumers.

Put this into the context of building AMI systems – each retailer has its own marketing strategy and competes with every other retailer for consumer market share. Our AMI system has to anticipate what the retailers need for metered data and service response and adapt to those needs. The AMI system design should be sufficient to support individual retailer identity.

The PUC recently passed revisions to terms and conditions with enhanced performance expectations. The review process provided a good insight into the retail perspective of what they needed an AMI system to do. It is evident that timely and accurate metered data is essential for quality retailer service to consumers. The retailers expect a quick response to disconnect/reconnect service orders. We’ve added remote disconnect and connect functionality to our AMI system pilot, to test how well we respond to retailer service order needs.

We currently have a pilot of 360 meters providing automated meter reading and remote connect/disconnect, and it’s working very well. It’s letting us test our interfaces and processes.

We are also testing automated outage/restoration notification – we’re particularly interested in reducing the interval between the actual outage event and restoration of service. We believe another benefit of meters reporting loss of supply is an ability to distinguish consumer-side service problems from supply side problems. Another anticipated benefit is an increased ability to recognize the cause of the outage, so that we can assign the correct crew. An example would be distinguishing a transformer failure by simply looking at groupings of meters reporting loss of service.

Please give us a short overview of the metering operations.

We have a good mixture of solid state and electromechanical meters; we prefer solid state. Our meter readers are able to read individual meters that are equipped with communication modules. About 7 percent of our gas and electric meters in the Houston/Galveston service areas can be read this way; mainly to resolve hard-to-access meter or safety issues. About 80 percent of our Minnesota meter reading is automated with a drive-by solution.

We serve about 2 million electric meters and 3.5 million gas meters. We use a mixture of suppliers for electric meters: Itron, GE, and Landis+Gyr, while our gas meters are largely from American, Lancaster or Sprague.

How do you disconnect them if necessary?

Most electric disconnects are performed with block-out sleeves. We are testing remote connect/disconnect using a collar switch device. Before the end of this year we plan to deploy meters with an ‘under-glass’ remote connect/disconnect switch.

I’m too dangerous to allow around a gas meter, so I’m not sure how they’re disconnected!

What procedures do you follow when doing upgrades/replacements?

Our electric meter population is largely electromechanical at this time – they were great meters. We prefer solid state meters for our AMI system and project their operating life as at least 20 years. Any electric meter replaced in the future will be a solid state meter.

The gas meter life span is about 25 years.

Please give us a short overview of your billing operations.

The retail service providers do the billing to electricity consumers in our service area.

What is your vision for your utility?

I’d like to see an intelligent grid serving our system. The Texas electric retail market will certainly benefit from improved service reliability, timely and accurate meter reading data, quick service response and end consumers empowered with usage information and history that is unique to them. 

A fully automated system would enable any retailer to pursue customized energy conservation programs, dynamic time-sensitive rate making and virtual prepayment services. CenterPoint Energy benefits from the distribution operating analysis and diagnostics, load management, and the safety improvements and reduced costs available with automated meter reading.

Electric, and Power Measurement; our gas meters are provided by Actaris, Sensus, American, and Dresser.

How do you disconnect them if necessary?

Disconnection is currently a manual process, but is only done for non-payment and vacancy after a certain time period. We do not physically disconnect/reconnect meters for move-outs/move-ins. Instead, we obtain a final or move-in read within several days of the event.

CPS Energy is currently in the process of piloting remote disconnect devices for premises where it makes multiple disconnections within the year.

How are meters read?

The CPS Energy meter reading operation is divided into two categories – Periodics and Aperiodics. In the Periodics process, which is the monthly cyclical reading process, the service territory is divided into 20 daily/regular cycles that average roughly 49,000 meters/installations each. Each cycle is divided into foot routes and motor routes.

Foot routes, generally defined, are routes within the metropolitan area where meter readers walk from installation to installation to collect reads. Motor routes are typically comprised of rural areas where installations are significant distances apart, which require the use of motor vehicles to collect reads. The off-cycle reading process averages approximately 1,250 re-reads, final reads and customer requested re-reads daily.

The meter reading software system that CPS uses is Itron’s PremierPlus4 (P4) system. The meter reading requests are downloaded daily to the P4 system from the SAP system. Work is then loaded to one of two Itron data collection systems – G5R handheld computers or the mobile collectors (MC2s).

From there, data collection is achieved in one of three ways:
1. Manual entry into the G5Rs.
2. Automatically, via radio-based technology using the G5Rs (off-site meter reading).
3. Automatically, via radio-based technology using the mobile collectors (drive-by).

Approximately 12,200 (25%) meters per day (daily/regular reads) are read via radio-based technology using drive-by. The collected reads are then loaded to the P4 system for transfer to the SAP system. Approximately 37% of electric and 20% of gas meters are equipped with radio-based modules.

What procedures do you follow when doing upgrades/replacements?

CPS Energy has a process of sample-testing its electric and gas meters. Certain types or groups of meters are pulled from the system and tested for accuracy and reliability.

What is the potential for AMR and more advanced technologies such as smart metering at your utility?

CPS Energy is in the process of conducting several AMR and smart metering pilots, for both residential and commercial customers, to determine the best solution(s). Given that one solution may not fit the entire service territory, CPS Energy is also piloting a meter data management (MDM) solution to provide flexibility in the future.

How does your utility manage customers who do not pay their accounts?
We place most of our efforts into collecting on accounts while they are still active. When an account is not paid on time, we send a mandatory disconnect notice. This is followed by an automated phone call, a door hanger, a second automated call, and finally, a service technician disconnects the meter.

If the account finals out and a balance is owed, we send a series of letters and then turn the account over to a third party collection agency, where it is reported to a credit bureau.

Do you outsource any business processes or operations?

We outsource the hanging of pre-disconnect door hangers. We are in the very early stages of creating a process for evaluating future opportunities for outsourcing.

Where do you see metering and billing operations going at your utility in the future?

Our emphasis has been on increasing the number of meters that are part of a drive-by technology. We are currently trying to make a business case to support AMR. In billing, we are working to increase the number of customers participating in EBPP.

What is your vision for your utility?

CPS Energy’s vision is to be the best publicly-owned energy company in the USA. This is a great vision statement and we are working hard to achieve it. However, it is our mission statement that speaks to my heart. Our core purpose is: “Benefiting our community by improving the quality of life of the people we serve.”

The product that we deliver is no longer an enhancement to our customers; it is a necessity. Customers who are without power, for whatever reason, always emphasize the negative impact on the quality of life. They need to feed their children, run their businesses and maintain their health. We are important to them and we have an obligation to help them maintain that quality of life. My vision for our utility is totally in line with our core purpose.