An interview with Sylvia Arnold


Texas Roadshow 2 

Please start by telling us something about yourself.

I have worked in the field of customer service for over 25 years.  Most of that was associated with the utility in some capacity.  In 1996 I accepted the position of Credit Manager with Austin Energy.  From there I moved to Shreveport, La. to manage the Call Center for CenterPoint Energy Arkla, a gas distribution company.  I am currently Director, Customer Service, for CPS Energy of San Antonio, Texas.

I have oversight over 4 of the primary functions of the Revenue Acquisition process for the company: Meter Reading, Billing and Accounts Receivable, Customer Contact and Collections.  These activities keep me pretty busy.  I speak at several conferences each year, primarily on Voice of the Customer related topics. 

I graduated from Texas State University with a degree in secondary education.  My teaching fields were government and history.  Although I chose not to pursue a career in teaching, the training provided a great foundation for my work in the public utility sector. 

On a personal note, my hobby is painting porcelain which gives me a complete break from dealing with customers and employees.    

Give a brief history and current overview of your utility

CPS Energy is the nation’s largest municipally owned energy company providing both natural gas and electric service.
Acquired by the City of San Antonio in 1942, we serve more than 640,000 electric customers and more than 310,000 natural gas customers in and around San Antonio, the eighth largest city in the United States. Proceeds from CPS Energy remain in San Antonio and account for more than one-fifth of the City’s annual operating budget for police and fire protection, street improvements, parks and other services.
Our customers’ bills rank among the lowest of the nation’s largest cities, and we have earned the highest financial rating of any electric system in the nation.

How has deregulation impacted your utility and your customers?

Although the deregulation of the Texas market, exempted municipally and co-operatively owned electric utilities from deregulation, there has been significant impact on CPS Energy.  We participate in the wholesale marketing of both gas and electricity which has been competitive for some time.  From the electric delivery and sales perspective, the prospect of competition has resulted in an increased emphasis on cost reduction, reduced cycle time, improved customer service and increased offerings to meet customer demand for choice.  We believe that our customers can have the best of both worlds and we are prepared to provide them with the benefits of competition without the risk. 

What are some of the key challenges your utility faces? (i.e. keeping track of transitory customers, ensuring customers conserve energy, water etc)

The key challenges that we are facing right now are essentially those that we talked about in relation to deregulation.  We are making a substantial investment in process improvement initiatives to keep our costs as low as possible.  We believe this is one of the keys to keeping our customers’ bills among the lowest in the nations largest cities.   At the same time, we are building a new coal fired generation plant and at least 3 major transmission lines.  Each of these requires substantial investments in capitol and have required major initiatives to protect our environment.  As a municipal, we have clearly heard the mandate of our customers that protection of the environment is a high priority.  Another key challenge is to drive customer loyalty by understanding the needs of various segments of our customer base and finding innovative ways to meet those needs.    

Please give us a short overview of the metering operations.

  • Type of meters in the field (electromechanical, electronic, smart meters etc)?
  • Stats on above (i.e. number of meters in the field etc)
  • Vendors that supply the meters?
  • How do you disconnect them if necessary?
  • Our residential meters are electro-mechanical.  We are currently modifying our specifications to include solid-state meters.   All our Commercial/Industrial meters are currently solid state.
  • CPS Energy uses gas meters with mechanical registers.  Some of our largest customers have gas meters equipped with electronic registers and volume correctors.
  • CPS Energy has 42,000 commercial and industrial electric meters and 15,000 commercial gas meters.  We have approximately 620,000 residential electric meters and 310,000 residential gas meters.
  • Our vendors for electric meters are Itron; Landis + Gyr, Elster, General Electric, and Power Measurement.  Our gas meters are provided by Actarus, 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 and please give an overview of this process (i.e. if using AMR, which systems, no of installations etc).

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 in which meter readers walk installation to installation to collect reads. Motor routes are typically comprised of rural areas where installations are significant distances apart. These routes require the use of motor vehicles for driving installation to installation to collect reads. The off-cycle reading process averages approximately 1,250 rereads, final reads and customer requested re-reads daily.

The meter reading software system that CPS uses is Itron’s PremierPlus4 (P4) system. Daily, the meter reading requests are downloaded 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 (OMR)), or 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, and what are the key factors you consider when reviewing different meters? (e.g. local vs. imported)

CPS Energy have a process of sampling 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? Is there a legal process? 

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 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 (such as meter reading, billing etc?)

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 you 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 (if any) R&D activities are being undertaken by your utility? (does not have to only be metering and or billing related) 

Whether or not R&D is an appropriate role for a municipal to engage in is still being debated.  At this time, we do not have an active R&D program.

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.  CPS 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 purp