Paula Gold-Williams, President and CEO of San Antonio-based public power utility CPS Energy, recently detailed how CPS Energy has become an “enabler” of San Antonio as a smart city and argued that rather than focus on the definition of what a smart city is, it is more important to start placing solutions in the hands of customers.
In an interview with the American Public Power Association, Gold-Williams also detailed how CPS Energy has worked hard to improve customer service in recent years and is exploring additional opportunities to build on that success. She also described the utility’s economic development activities.
(This story is based on an interview that took place in late September and is the second of two articles based on that interview. The first story focused on CPS Energy’s Flexible Path strategy).
Not one definition of a smart city
“The one thing that’s wrong with ‘smart city’ is it implies that cities aren’t smart today,” said Gold-Williams. There isn’t one definition of a smart city, she said. Rather, “it’s a testament to the possibilities of what we want to do when we’re enabled by technology along the way.”
“It’s not important for the industry to think of a definition. It’s more important that we start to put solutions in the hands of customers,” Gold-Williams said.
“It doesn’t matter what it looks like on the East Coast or the West Coast. It matters what you put in your community, and, again, municipal power’s going to be well-positioned for that, ” she added.
San Antonio and CPS Energy are leaders in smart city efforts in the U.S. Earlier this year, global law firm Dentons announced Gold-Williams as a smart cities/communities think tank energy industry co-chair, along with former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. The think tank will advise public and private stakeholders on what the firm sees as the 14 pillars of success for a smart city program. The energy pillar, chaired by Gold-Williams and Moniz, will look at how smart cities and communities incorporate a multidirectional grid and advance clean energy solutions that include a broad array of distributed energy resources.
Smart is partnering
Gold-Williams described CPS Energy as an “enabler” of San Antonio as a smart city. Converting CPS Energy to a digital network and using AMI increased the amount of information the utility can access. This allowed CPS Energy to get to the preventive, predictive state of operations and look for anomalies so customers could benefit from advance maintenance planning.
The transition to digital was a foundational step to leverage potential benefits with other entities, and it formed the basis for a smart city or community. CPS Energy partners with the city of San Antonio and city entities such as San Antonio Water System, VIA Metropolitan Transit, and the San Antonio River Authority.
CPS Energy has been working with the mayor, city manager, and council members and discussing what San Antonio could look like if they could better support customers from multiple prisms. Together, they are deciding what the foundation of their smart city could be, according to Gold-Williams.
The utility is talking about how to best optimize and centralize its data, removing sensitive personal information, to allow the community to put the data to use. “We’re going to be able to offer the business community another connected platform where people can come in from a tech perspective and help us create new apps, think about where we put new lighting systems in, and all of the things that come along with virtual reality and augmented reality, for example,” Gold-Williams noted.
At CPS Energy, “We’ve been diligent, and we’ve been the promoters of the partnerships and the supporters, and if somebody wants to talk to us about it, we’re there,” she said. “If they don’t want to talk to us about it, we go and introduce the concepts to them and start talking about the possibilities.”
Public power is in the best trusted position to promote partnerships, talk about possibilities, and build support to put options on the table. Public power can ask the community, “What do you want your smart city to be?”
San Antonio’s Office of Innovation has also been a key player in advancing smart city efforts. The office held a smart cities readiness workshop in March 2017 to discuss and develop a roadmap to San Antonio’s future. More than 100 participants, including CPS Energy, attended.
In January 2018, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced the creation of the Innovation and Technology Committee, to be made up of public and private citizens who would build on smart city solutions that modernize the way San Antonio tackles growth challenges. The committee was asked to assess the impact of emerging trends and technologies and recommend how to advance smart city goals by enhancing cybersecurity, promoting digital inclusion, improving mobility, expanding municipal broadband, and pursuing economic opportunity.
Customer service and economic development
Gold-Williams also discussed CPS Energy’s customer service and economic development activities.
She noted that when she started at the utility, “we understood that our services and the ability for us to make and keep our prices for energy affordable were value drivers. We used the concept of economies of scale to drive benefits. If businesses were coming in and they were going to be able to keep our generation level high, without creating lots of spikes in usage, then we gave them some of the best prices because we figured that we could better manage a reliable demand for power and that was good. You could create good options for super large power customers and things like that are still core of what we do.”
But at the same time, the utility industry knows that growth is good. “We know other things matter too. So instead of just trying to give our customers good services at affordable prices, we also talk to them about conservation. We talk to them about our demand response program. We talk about do they want to incorporate renewables in another way that services their load.”
Gold-Williams said that “the real thing you want to get at” is helping companies to grow, add jobs and expand “and just by their effort to do that, we all pick up more business.”
In order to support that, CPS Energy engages in a variety of activities including its New Energy Economy (NEE) program.
The utility notes on its website that its NEE partners have committed more than $23 million in support of local educational programs, over 900 new jobs, and over $200 million in investments to fuel the local economy. “Collectively, once our partners reach all of their commitments, the annual economic impact of our NEE is projected to be over $1.4 billion,” CPS Energy said.
“We bring businesses to San Antonio. We talk to businesses that want new, innovative solutions,” Gold-Williams said.
She also noted that she sits on the executive committee of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation. “So even if it doesn’t relate to energy, it’s a customer, so I pay attention to everything.”
In her role at the foundation, Gold-Williams works with Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, the President and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, who previously served as Vice President of Public Affairs and Brand Management for CPS Energy.
“It’s just amazing the ability that we have when we partner together. Sometimes we look at the ability to bring in businesses from around the nation. We also think about businesses from around the globe that we can attract here. We can do that because we’re a business owned by a community,” the President and CEO of CPS Energy said in the interview.
With respect to customer service, Gold-Williams noted that the utility has taken a number of steps to improve operations in this area.
CPS Energy has increased staffing levels and reinforced its third-party backup service provider. In addition, the utility has upgraded its training and “our people are not customer service reps anymore, they’re energy advisors.”
She said that the utility doesn’t view longer phone calls with customers as a bad thing. “We don’t bump people off the phone. We always ask them, have we answered all their questions, is there anything else that we could do for them. We call them back. We make accessing us easy.”
She added, “we are just continuing to look for every solution we can – new websites, new phone systems – and that’s just the beginning because we’re going to be incorporating AI and other analytics into our service model.”
CPS Energy is “not afraid to say we’re sorry. We’re not afraid to say let us fix it. Our egos are not in the way of what we service here and who we service. Not at all. It is really about the customers, so service is paramount.”
Gold-Williams pointed out that CPS Energy “was one of the first in the industry to actually create a Chief Customer Engagement Officer role.” CPS Energy’s Chief Customer Engagement Officer (CCEO), Felecia Etheridge, joined the public power utility in August 2016.
Board offers ringing endorsement of performance by Gold-Williams
In June, CPS Energy’s Board of Trustees offered a ringing endorsement of the accomplishments that Gold-Williams has achieved over the past two years. The board conducted its formal annual performance evaluation of Gold-Williams at a board meeting.
In their discussions, board members assessed Gold-Williams’ actions, which have dramatically increased customer satisfaction over the past two years, as well as continued the utility’s strong financial performance.
In particular, they noted that under her strategic leadership CPS Energy has maintained its bond ratings of AA+, Aa1 and AA from Fitch, Moody’s and S&P, respectively. These ratings place the company in the top three percent of all utilities, which translates to very low interest rates on debt secured to operate the business, saving CPS Energy customers millions of dollars every year.
“Leading CPS Energy is a complex and demanding position, and Ms. Gold-Williams has functioned at a consistently high level and overall, performed outstandingly,” said Board Chair John Steen.
Citing Gold-Williams’ national designation as the “2018 Energy Thought Leader of the Year,” which was awarded to her at the Energy Thought Summit (ETS) in Austin, Texas, as well as her recognition from the Keystone Policy Center for energy sector innovation, Board Trustee Ed Kelley noted that, “CPS Energy is viewed as a national leader, thanks to Gold-Williams and her team.”
Gold-Williams joined CPS Energy in 2004 after holding various positions in several San Antonio businesses, including regional controller for Time Warner Cable and vice president of finance for Luby's, Inc.