With emerging energy technologies, electric utilities face disruption to their long-established business model of selling kilowatt-hours to customers. This case study is one in a 5-part series that shows how public power utilities across the country are innovating in the face of this disruption and responding to the desires of their communities. Learn how they are becoming nimble, customer-focused and respected 21st Century utilities.
Burlington Electric Department (BED) was established in 1905 and serves more than 21,000 customers. Its annual sales revenues for 2018 were $47 million. This public power utility employs 118 people and returns more than $2.2 million to Burlington taxpayers through payments to local government.
The vibrant city of Burlington, Vermont, has seen growth in its population and commercial activity for three decades, and yet the city is using six percent less electricity than it did in 1989.
Burlington Electric Department, the public power utility serving the city, takes great pride in its efficiency efforts and is saving customers $12 million annually on electric bills through efficiency investments made to date. At the same time, the utility knows that customers can benefit from new electric technologies such as electric vehicles, and this presents an opportunity to become an even greater trusted technology advisor to its customers. In addition, if well-managed, this new usage can provide a benefit for all customers by putting downward pressure on electric rates.
Today, the utility is focused on partnering with customers for the entire suite of electrified technologies they will use – from offering guidance on vendor selection to incentivizing purchases.
BED plays a critical role in advancing Burlington’s goal to become a net zero energy city in the electric, thermal, and ground transportation sectors by 2030.
Innovation on a sound foundation
BED is entering its eleventh year without a rate increase, a notable accomplishment as it has sourced 100% of its power from renewable generation for the past five years, and faced escalating customer adoption of solar and other new technologies (Burlington has seen a six-fold increase in solar installations from 2012 to 2017, making it the city with the highest per capita solar in the Northeast, and fourth nationally, according to Environment America).
Customers tell BED that they value the utility’s reliability — fewer than half of BED’s customers experience an outage of any kind within a year, and those who do are typically without power for less than one hour. BED is committed to maintaining and even improving these high standards.
BED is layering innovation on top of these bedrock public power values of affordability and reliability. This is part cultural shift, and part capital investment shift. Instead of being solely focused on the distribution grid and the central power supply model, the utility is investing in community charging stations so people know that they can get around with an electric vehicle.
In conjunction with the shift in perspective, the utility is investing in new IT systems that are more dynamic and can help manage more complicated rate structures, such as off-peak charging rates for electric vehicles and net metering for customers with solar or other distributed energy technologies.
Empowering customers to practice sustainability
From offering rebates on everything electric to helping finance home energy efficiency upgrades, BED is becoming a valuable resource to customers who want to reduce their carbon footprint. The utility is also positioning itself as an objective advisor.
Some recent and future programs the utility offers its customers include:
- Incentives and rebates for e-bikes, e-lawnmowers, electric vehicles and chargers, and heat pumps.
- An off-peak electric vehicle charging rate of 8 cents per kilowatt hour – comparable to fueling up a car for 60 cents a gallon.
- Financing options through local credit unions for efficiency upgrades and solar and other technologies.
- A solar shopper program through which customers can choose from up to six vetted partner installers for rooftop solar panels.
- Work on developing a District Energy System, which would capture the heat generated by the utility’s biomass plant and distribute it to customers as a heating service.
Aligned with community
BED’s transformation to a trusted energy advisor for its customers builds off a nearly 115-year legacy as a valued asset to the city. The utility’s long history of community engagement has won loyalty. Survey results show that community members have a positive view of the utility.
BED’s innovative business model is also inclusive and involves the community. Burlington’s ambitious net zero energy push comes directly from the community’s values. More than 95% of BED’s customers have indicated support for the effort.
Internal collaboration is also woven into the utility’s culture. Before launching new programs, BED holds cross-divisional brainstorms to get perspectives from different areas of the company — customer care, energy services, IT, and engineering.
BED is well-positioned to be a good partner for customers — in keeping the lights on, enabling clean transportation and heating, and encouraging distributed generation — all while remaining cost-competitive and reliable.