|Vol69-5 May 2019|
In 2017, SMECO installed smart meters throughout its service area. The smart meter deployment put into place the groundwork that would provide the cooperative’s members with detailed electric usage data. Smart meters made it possible in 2018 to implement the tools that could present that information to members.
SMECO integrated the energy portal concept with its online Account Manager system and launched the new service on November 1. By viewing energy use data in SMECO’s online Account Manager, members can take more control over their electric bill. Account Manager now provides energy use and energy cost details that enable customers to track and analyze their own data to determine when they use the most electricity and how much it costs to run their household every hour of every day. With energy use information at their fingertips, members who want to save money by reducing their energy use can determine what energy-efficiency methods may work best for them.
Key features include energy use details, bill forecasting, bill comparisons, an energy use profile, and neighbor comparisons, as well as tips on how to save. As the saying goes, “knowledge is power,” and with these tools, SMECO members will have the knowledge to use less power and save money.
Energy Use Details. This section provides data based on energy cost or energy use. Data can be shown monthly for a year, daily for a month, or in 15-minute increments. Temperature data are also included to help members understand the relationship between weather and energy use. The data are shown in graphs to help illustrate patterns. If members have a bill that seems higher than normal, they can investigate the energy use details by clicking on the graph to see which day the most energy was used. The data can help members determine when they used the most electricity and how much energy was used, giving them the knowledge to implement changes in the home that can have lasting impacts on energy savings.
If the usage details reflect an overall and consistent increase, the homeowner may be prompted to have their HVAC serviced since heating and cooling are typically the highest energy users in the home. Providing weather data allows members to compare consumption to outdoor temperatures during the same time period to help determine if the HVAC unit is operating properly.
Bill Forecast. The Bill Forecast tab shows how much the current bill is expected to be based on at least seven days’ usage. Actual usage will be shown if the member is only a few days into the billing period. If members who are on the path to a high bill are given a warning, they may have the opportunity to make changes and prevent a high bill.
Bill Comparison. This tab shows how the current bill compares to the previous month’s bill or the same month last year. Possible reasons for the differences in bills are also provided based on meter and weather data.
Energy Use Profile. This tab shows how much energy is used for different purposes: heating, cooling, water heating, lighting, etc. By answering questions about their specific home, members can get the most accurate information.
Neighbor Comparison. The Neighbor Comparison tab shows how much energy a member used in comparison to homes with similar square footage and sources of heat. In order to make the comparison more accurate, members can update the Energy Use Profile to align their homes with those that are most similar.
Ways to Save. This section provides tips for saving energy. The tips can be more personalized if the questionnaire about the home is completed. Since the launch of the smart energy tabs in Account Manager, many members have already recognized the benefits of having access to the detailed data about their usage. Some members have noticed increased usage patterns that prompted servicing of their HVAC systems. Others noticed spikes that prompted simple modifications which could have long-term impacts on their electric bill.
The second phase of the Account Manager smart energy rollout included weekly energy use emails to customers for whom SMECO had email addresses on file. Members can also receive email or text messages alerting them to a possible “high bill.” The emails and alerts launched on February 21, 2019.
The wealth of information available to customers through the Account Manager smart energy tabs is reflected in the redesigned SMECO bills. SMECO worked with its bill print vendor to develop a new look with improved capabilities for showing bill details.
The redesign process included many members of the SMECO team who could provide insight into customer feedback about the previous bill design. The team worked together to determine ways to reduce confusion, simplify the bill, and add information that would give members more details about their electric use and monthly charges.
On the new bills, information is presented in a hierarchy of importance. For members who simply want to know how much they owe and when the payment is due, that information is displayed prominently at the top of the bill. Those who owe a past due amount get a note printed in red, while members who made a payment will have a “thank you” note with a thumbs-up icon.
While most account holders have fairly straightforward bills without much change from month to month, others have more account information that SMECO needed to capture. For example, more than 5,700 customers with solar panels have net metering information included on their bills. Members who are on Budget Billing and members who receive financial assistance also have additional information displayed on their bills.
On the new bills, account details are printed on the back along with additional messages about energy efficiency. And for members who are purchasing power from an alternate supplier, a cost comparison lets them know how much they saved or overpaid.
Website Chat Feature
In July 2018, SMECO released another new technological feature meant to add ease and convenience for members. The live chat option on SMECO’s website enables visitors to reach out to a customer care center representative Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. without making a phone call. Within seven seconds of landing on SMECO’s website, the live chat window will appear if a chat agent is logged in to answer questions. Since its launch, hundreds of successful chats have addressed inquiries ranging from account balance and billing questions to information on starting new service.
While there were many technological features added for SMECO’s members, some things at the cooperative do not change. SMECO’s mission remains: be responsive, reliable, and resourceful—the power you can count on. Nothing shows the mission more clearly than when there is a power outage; and in March 2018, Southern Maryland was hit with the biggest storm that year—and for many years prior.
Winter Storm Riley
Beginning on the morning of Friday, March 2, Winter Storm Riley brought damaging winds to the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. This nor’easter caused more damage to SMECO’s electric system than any hurricane or winter storm Southern Maryland has experienced in the past six years—not since the derecho that hit in the summer of 2012. The damage to SMECO’s system was severe and widespread, affecting customers across the entire service area. In total, the cooperative experienced 114,000 customer interruptions. Sustained high winds knocked down trees and power lines across Southern Maryland.
SMECO had 114 line workers and more than 90 contractor personnel deployed throughout the weekend and field personnel began restoration efforts early Friday morning. Although there was no snow or rain, and the temperature was mild, crews were battered by the relentless wind gusts. Those high winds caused trees to continue to fall and damage power lines for three days. In total, 68 poles, 40 distribution transformers, and 803 fuses were replaced as a result of the storm. Damage also included 1,446 downed wire spans. Within three days, the SMECO team completed restoring service to members directly affected by the storm.
Powerful storms are one major risk the cooperative and Southern Maryland face. SMECO is constantly taking steps to mitigate the impact of storms on the power lines through clearing rights-of-way and updating equipment. Managing risk is a major component for keeping the cooperative safe and sound so it can continue to serve its members.
Enterprise Risk Management
Businesses have lots of risks to manage, from the everyday duties their employees perform to the once-in-a-lifetime crisis. In order to manage risk across the entire organization, SMECO adopted enterprise risk management (ERM) as a strategic business discipline to monitor the full spectrum of risks the cooperative must address.
SMECO began its ERM program by interviewing more than 40 stakeholders throughout the organization to discuss risks they deal with on a daily basis and to identify major areas of concern. As a result of the continual assessment, SMECO now has 81 risks that are being addressed through its risk management framework and each risk has been prioritized according to impact and likelihood.
All SMECO employees manage risk every day. Line workers meet and review a work plan before beginning a job, they have safety gear that they wear to protect themselves, and they follow certain procedures when working on power lines. Accounting personnel follow standardized business processes, they utilize a system of checks and balances, and they conduct an annual audit to make sure our processes comply with regulations.
SMECO has a very strong organization: revenues are appropriate and expenses are under control; a good workforce and a solid foundation provide strength and stability. Through the ERM program, the cooperative is striving to consolidate monitoring of multiple factors across the organization: from those related to interest rates and power costs, to system reliability and cyber security. By monitoring these factors, the cooperative is taking the necessary measures to understand and maintain its enterprise health.
Decisions in a risk management culture are based on a 360-degree view of risk at all levels. SMECO’s management team considers trends, impacts, resources, industry best practices, effective controls, and the likelihood that a given risk will occur.
While SMECO has always practiced risk management to varying degrees, the ERM program formalizes its approach.
Lending a hand
A cooperative belongs to the community it serves, and our members can count on SMECO’s commitment to the community. Throughout the year, the employees of the cooperative donate their time and money to support a variety of charitable organizations that benefit members of Southern Maryland.
Among the many ways SMECO employees give back, some stood out in 2018.
In September, SMECO and its employees donated 2,300 pounds of food to the Southern Maryland Food Bank. Over the course of two weeks, SMECO employees brought in non-perishables, canned goods, and monetary donations for the Food Bank.
The SOMD Food Bank has served the tri-county area for more than 35 years, working with pantries, shelters, group homes, and soup kitchens to provide direct service to isolated and resource-poor areas.
In December, SMECO presented a total of $55,650 to the Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties Hospice organizations. This donation represented the combined proceeds of two fund-raisers held each year—the SMECO 75 Bike Ride and the SMECO Annual Charity Golf Outing. Every year, SMECO selects a new charitable organization. In six years, the SMECO employee fund-raisers have contributed $270,650 to local organizations.
SMECO employees have also contributed more than $40,000 to the March of Dimes since 2002. In addition, SMECO employees have contributed more than $200,000 to the United Way organizations of Southern Maryland since 1990.
Whether it’s lending a hand in the community or working together to restore power after a storm, SMECO’s employees are invested in the future of the cooperative and Southern Maryland. We will continue to put members first as we continue to seek out ways to improve customer service and provide reliable and competitively priced electricity and related services to our members.