Nestled between the peaks of Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California, the City of Banning lives up to its motto of “The place that has everything you need”. With its picturesque beauty and almost mythical history, a strong sense of community is immediately apparent. Smart Energy International spoke to Fred Mason and Chuck Thurman, co-leaders in the Electric Department. Fred is Power Resource & Revenue Administrator, Meter Reading Group, City of Banning, and Chuck is Operations Manager, City of Banning.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Fred Mason: I have worked for the City for seven years. Before that I was with the City of Riverside as their field services manager for meter reading and customer service for four years. Then I transferred into the power resource division. I came to Banning as the resource administrator, and now wear multi-hats – dong rates, resources, public benefit programs and service operations. I have 14 years’ experience in utilities, and prior to that I was production control supervisor for an aerospace company for eight years.

Chuck Thurman: I’ve been working at City of Banning for two and a half years as operations maintenance manager, excluding the meter reading staff, but I do overlook the metering staff. I came by way of Snohomish County in Washington State, the 12th largest public utility in the US. I’ve spent 29 years in the trade, coming up through the ranks.

Please give a brief history of the City of Banning utility.
FM: A privately-held utility started in 1913, and the city bought it out in 1922, when it became a city-owned municipal utility. We currently serve a little over 12,000 customers, with 11,000 being residential and a little over a thousand commercial or industrial. We get our power from four different sources: a piece of a coal plant in New Mexico, a piece of a nuclear plant, a piece of the Hoover Dam generating plant and a long-term contract with a geothermal plant out of the Imperial Irrigation District.

CT: We also have our own water company, so it’s not just metering for electric, but also for water.

FM: We’re one of 12 Southern Californian utilities that is part of SCPPA (Southern Californian Public Power Authority). Eleven of them are municipal utilities.

What are some of the key challenges you face?
FM: Our size is a problem. We are a full service utility, but because we are smaller the challenge is being able to incorporate more costly technological advances. We are very fortunate in having a relationship with the City of Riverside, which provides several services on our behalf. Because they are a much larger utility, we piggy-back on some of their services – services that we could not afford to offer as a stand-alone utility.

CT: Being a member of SCPPA is also very useful, because so many of us can get together. One example is training. At our last meeting we reviewed a great host of field training that would be financially very difficult for just one of us to offer. But as a consortium is it easier to conduct this training. We share our resources, with each utility having something to offer at the table.

What are some of the services provided by the City of Riverside?
FM: Scheduling services are a good example. We will need to provide scheduling services to our customers, and the City of Riverside provides the switchboard services for us for a set fee.

CT: Another example is substation maintenance. A maintenance crew would be another resource we would not be able to use to the full, so we contract to the City of Riverside to come in and do the maintenance for us. And what is beneficial is that they are also a utility that understands the needs of a municipal utility. It’s not like they are wanting to make money off of us – just to cover their costs and maintain our relationship.

Give an overview of your metering operations and projects currently underway.
FM: I took over the meter readers in May. We are currently in the process of introducing AMR. There hasn’t been maintenance or updates of the information collected, and the routes were not sequenced properly, so when the data was downloaded into the handhelds it was something of a mess. We first sorted out the routes properly, and then we identified accounts with access problems like locked gates. These accounts get the AMR meters first; that way we can avoid estimated bills and offer much more reliable readings. Safety of our personnel is also important, if it’s a dangerous dog type of thing. Finally we are also working with our large industrial customers by upgrading their meters to incorporate time of use rates.

We have about 100 AMR meters out there, and we’re keeping a close eye on their operation and how it affects customers. There are a few hundred more to install and connect, but we will only be using AMR where we see a problem. As a small utility, the meter readers are the frontline to our customers. Every month a visit by a meter reader allows us to have that customer interaction that you wouldn’t get with AMR.

CT: By the nature of the work, there are so many things that you need to be on top of that you will never do away with sending the employee into the field.

What strategies have you implemented to strengthen your relationship with your customers?
FM: When the meter readers are out there, they can answer a customers queries directly.

CT: The crew members that go out are engaging with customers all the time. They’re out there at least once a month, communicating with the customer, and this strengthens our relationship.

How do you manage customers who steal energy or don’t pay their accounts?
FM: We had three guys caught just last week. Two of them hadn’t paid their bill, so they pulled the panel and connected behind the meter. One of them had removed the meter and had been diverting energy over a period of several years. You can see when this took place when looking at his history. His service panel had been twisted and tweaked to the point where it was unsafe. His supply was cut off and he has to replace the service panel.

CT: In addition to that, we have a program whereby our meter men will go out and seek to find cases of current diversion. Having the men in the field really helps; they will notice differences from month to month and report them.

Are there any R&D activities currently underway?
FM: At the time we initiated the electric project we were also looking into water, but our problem was the integration package with the metering versus the software we wanted to buy. There are several different meter manufacturers and we met some of them to discuss the capabilities of their product versus the software we had, and how they would integrate. We had planned to go forward, but it will just be a while before that option is available to us.

CT: It’s all up in the air. We thought we would have a package integrated by now, although there has been some indication that the interface worked.

What is your vision for your utility?
FM: We expected to almost double our customer base within the next five years, because had a booming housing market with preliminary plans from developers to add 9,000 homes over the next five to ten years. But because the housing market has softened so much, the indication from the developers is that they will likely pull back from several of the planned projects. So we might not see the doubling of customers as we had originally anticipated.

CT: But by the same token, those who we thought would pull back have picked up and moved forward. So we will see where it all ends, although I think we definitely will grow. We have the land; it’s just a matter of whether the developers are actually going to go forward with their projects.

Thank you both for your input.