An interview with Keith Beal


Texas Roadshow 2 

Keith Beal

Donald Naiser and Keith Beal  

Tell us about yourself and your career at WCEC.

I have been with WCEC for 9 and a half years. I started in the metering department as a meter reader, reading all members’ meters, and then we went to an AMR system. There are still some 3 phase meters that have to be manually read, due to the need to inspect these locations periodically. All of our single phase 120V/240v CL100, CL200 and CL320 accounts have AMR meters. 

In 2003 I finished up a Bachelors Degree and achieved some Microsoft certifications and now I oversee our billing, delinquents, collections, meter reading, AMR and load management system, as well as our computer network and wireless Internet service.

How did you become involved in the utility industry?

I initially applied for a linesman job and then HR said there was an opening in the metering department – so I applied and worked my way up from there by going back to college.

Please tell us a bit about WCEC

WCEC started operations in 1938. We are a co-op, owned by our 3500+ members (roughly 20% industrial, 80% residential.) We are one of the smaller electric co-ops in Texas. We cover a territory servicing four counties, going up to the Colorado River authority. Some counties are single certified, meaning that only one utility can serve customers within that area.

We mainly provide electricity, but we also offer additional services such as surge protection, water heaters, electric grills, and an internet service.

How has deregulation impacted your utility and your customers?

WCEC didn’t opt in to deregulation, as co-ops were not part of the process.

What are some of the key challenges your utility faces?

Our main challenge is keeping up with technology, but we are ahead of some other co-ops of a similar size. We are getting a mapping system and communications for our fleet vehicles and have an ESRI electronic mapping system. Multi-Speak will help us tie our billing, AMR and mapping all together, which will allow all the customer information and mapping to be available to our workers in the field. 

Another challenge is that the cost of gas fuel has increased over the past few years, causing electric prices to rise.

Please give us a short overview of your metering operations.

We have about 5600 AMR, electromechanical and solid state meters in the field. Cannon Technologies supplies the three-phase meters, and the AMR meters come from Texas Meter & Device.

How do you disconnect them if necessary?

We generally know if people are going to pay or not, but if they don’t pay we physically go out and disconnect. We have tossed around the idea of remote disconnect meters used in conjunction with our AMR system to send signals to remotely disconnect or limit the meter to a certain kW. However, these meters are $200 more expensive, so we haven’t really gone that way. 

What procedures do you follow when doing upgrades/replacements, and what are the key factors you consider when reviewing different meters?

We have a meter and service check program where every meter has to be tested every seven years. We go to each location and physically remove the meter for testing, do visual checks, and note any preventive maintenance work that may be needed. We check roughly 1500 meters per year and we have a part time person doing the inspections – he helps with readings and makes sure the readings are correct for billing purposes. We verify them, and if something looks strange we are sent back out again to verify readings or remove meter for testing.

How does your utility manage customers who do not pay their accounts? Is there a legal process?

Customers get 16 days to pay, and if they don’t pay within that time they are charged a delinquent fee. If they don’t pay on the first of the following month, we either disconnect or make prepayment arrangements, but the state doesn’t allow us to cut members off in hot weather. 

Do you outsource any business processes or operations (such as meter reading, billing?)

The billing is processed here, and we then send a file to people who provide billing software. They download the file and do bulk mail distribution. The company is NISC (National Information Solutions Co-operative) from St Louis. They provide the billing for many electric co-ops.

Please give us a short overview of your billing operations and some of your customer management / service initiatives.

Customers are billed monthly. We also offer online bill payments, and quite a few people are taking advantage of this. Customers also have the option to pay by phone. We prefer to speak to our members to maintain the personal contact. We do have a voice-mail system, but chose not to use IVR because our method of dealing with our members has always been on a personal level, not computer generated. One thing about our company is no matter when you call, you will always speak to a real person.

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

I foresee credit card type meter billing – the technology is there but I anticipate more advancement in this area. I also see web-based meters, which do exist now but not in volume, that allow you to remotely read the meter through a web interface.

What (if any) R&D activities are being undertaken by your utility?

We are looking at putting mapping, billing and meter reading together in one area via Multi-Speak – at the moment, we are updating each area one by one. We are also looking at an outage management system, and we have goals in terms of automation and dispatch. 

Finally, what are your personal interests?

Fishing, and spending time with family. I also work a lot on the Internet and do web hosting at home.

Thank you for your input.