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A New Twist on Real-Time Public Utilities

When you think about it, real-time operations are really nothing new to public utilities.

As consumers we demand nothing less. Flip the switch, and the lights should turn on immediately. Turn the faucet, and we expect to see a steady flow of clean water.

But here’s a new twist.

Up in the Pacific Northwest, the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) wants this same type of instant response across every aspect of its business.

“If we are driving real-time operations in our transmission and distribution systems, doesn’t it make sense to have real-time capabilities on our business side as well?” asks Benjamin Beberness, Snohomish County PUD’s chief information officer.

Starting with the Infrastructure

Snohomish County PUD supplies electricity to 332,000 customers and water to 19,000 customers in a large portion of northwestern Washington State. It is the second-largest utility in the Pacific Northwest and has been a regional leader in energy conservation for more than 30 years.

In recent years, the utility has made a significant investment in digital technology to boost operational efficiencies and improve service reliability.

“We have upgraded our electric grid with smart grid technology and automated key elements of the infrastructure like substations and distribution systems,” Beberness explains. For example, one of the utility’s first digital projects was connecting scores of substations with more than 160 miles of fiber optic cable. This improved Snohomish County PUD’s ability to measure, monitor, and control power via robust two-way communications.

But the use of digital technology at the utility is not restricted to its electric power infrastructure. Snohomish County PUD just completed a major consolidation of its IT landscape onto a single real-time enterprise platform using SAP Business Suite powered by SAP HANA. This included the implementation of ERP, customer relationship management, and asset management solutions.

Energizing the Business

As the CIO sees it, the optimized business platform will not only further improve operational efficiency across a 2,200 square mile service territory, but also increase customer satisfaction and help the utility pursue future energy projects.

“For example, we can now look at our widespread assets in real-time,” says Beberness. “This is huge at a utility that encompasses more than 6,300 miles of electric lines and 375 miles of water pipe. And this visibility will let us make better ongoing decisions around upgrades and capital budgeting.”

He also believes bringing data together from across the enterprise will help the utility develop a clearer picture of its hundreds of thousands of consumers.

“Having all this information in-memory will energize our customer analytics and help us identify which products and conservation programs people are most interested in.”

Fueling Future Innovation

In fact, spurring product innovation is one of the specific long-term benefits that Snohomish County PUD anticipates from its IT transformation project.

This is a good thing, because developing conservation programs and renewable energy sources seems to be particularly relevant in a state considered among the “greenest” in the nation. When asked about the importance of a utility investing in renewable energy sources, Snohomish PUD customers rated it an 8.25 on a 10-point scale.

“Clean hydroelectric power already accounts for more than 80% of our fuel mix,” notes Beberness, “but we continue to explore additional renewable sources such as geothermal.”

According to Snohomish County PUD, geothermal has one of the smallest overall footprints of any energy source. And the region’s many inactive volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers could offer many opportunities. The utility has also been a national leader in the research of tidal energy.

Generating Some Well-Deserved Recognition

Snohomish County PUD’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed.

In a national survey of 82 utilities conducted in the fall of 2013, Snohomish County PUD was ranked #1 for program offerings. And more recently, it was recognized as the 2015 Visionary Leader by the SAP Excellence in Utilities awards program.

Still, the CIO thinks utility-wide visibility and virtually instant access to information will drive customer service and innovation to higher levels in the future.

“We believe real-time systems across Snohomish County PUD will help us operate more effectively today and allow us to serve our customers even better tomorrow,” says Beberness.

Join me on Twitter at @JohnGWard3.

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