Customer Service

Disruption stimulates innovation at BrightRidge

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.

BrightRidge was established in 1945 and serves 78,703 customers. Its annual sales revenues for 2018 were $197.5 million. This public power utility employs 184 full-time personnel and returns $5.44 million annually through payments in lieu of taxes to local governments.

In an era where pundits tout the “democratization” of energy and efficient products proliferate in the marketplace, innovation can disrupt the public power model. On the flip side, it can present an opportunity for public power providers to revamp business models, remove barriers, embrace new technologies, and increase services offered to customers.

With disruptors streaming across the horizon, the former Johnson City Power Board’s governing team and stakeholders realized marketplace evolution required a more agile business structure. Thus, the public power utility was reborn as BrightRidge in 2017.

Energy authority legislation was crafted to permit this rebirth and passed in the Tennessee legislature. This supported a renewed mandate for BrightRidge to empower customers through efficient, reliable, and affordable energy and connected services that spur growth and development.

While retaining the core public power tenets of community ownership and local control, the new energy authority model allowed BrightRidge the autonomy to respond rapidly to capture new opportunities in the marketplace. BrightRidge further gained greater flexibility to set rates, independently borrow, and manage overall utility direction.

As CEO Jeff Dykes observed, “Public power providers level the playing field, but you can’t do it by sitting still atop aging infrastructure while anticipating the perpetual continuation of past market conditions. It’s either adapt or expire.”

Leveraging data and technology

Big data and connected technology are the rules of the road in the 21st century economy, and BrightRidge is continually learning how to harness both to better support customers.

In 2010, the utility realized that its antiquated metering network was a hurdle in adapting to the evolving marketplace. So BrightRidge installed advanced metering infrastructure, which provided a suite of new tools to monitor and react in real time to outages, sags, swells, and peak demand, by analyzing the system’s 1.87 million daily readings.

AMI unlocks 2.5 megawatts of load for the utility that can be shed during peak demand, with a projected cumulative savings of more than $7 million from 2013 through 2031. AMI also avoids about 20,000 truck rolls per year, at an estimated $1 million in savings annually.

After launching its AMI network, BrightRidge went on to deploy remote load management devices on customer-owned water heaters beginning in 2013.

Technology also supported internal efficiencies. The utility transitioned customer service to a paperless workflow and deployed off-the-shelf software to enable online collaboration and record keeping.

Innovation and customer service

BrightRidge Broadband, launched in 2019, provides 10 gigabyte broadband service (facilitating much greater speeds than most private, for-profit providers) to customers in denser urban areas, while offering competitive wireless broadband to previously underserved rural customers.

In response to changing customer preferences, the utility has introduced other services, such as:

  • SmartHub web and mobile apps for customers to track usage, pay bills, and report outages — 42,684 customers are enrolled.  
  • Web chat functionality for customers.
  • Low or no cost services to residential and commercial customers, such as in-home energy audits, HVAC audits, new heat pump loans, as well as power quality and power factor analysis, equipment metering, lighting analysis, infrared scans, and ultrasonic air leak testing for commercial customers.
  • A $40 credit and free maintenance on water heater load management devices and mechanical thermostats — this has helped the utility save significantly through peak shaving.

BrightRidge also has established the region’s first utility-scale solar farm, a 5 MW project in Telford, Tennessee. The utility leveraged its 0.5 MW annual allocation from the project to create the region’s first community solar customer service offering.

The utility also launched the region’s first electric vehicle charging network in July 2019 in Gray, Johnson City, and Jonesborough, with level 2 charging stations being installed at five locations through the remainder of 2019.

Staying true to community

From its inception, the public power provider has played a huge role in the growth and development of the community. BrightRidge is a major driver of community development and is by far the largest single taxpayer in the Johnson City/Washington County, Tennessee area.

Free from Wall Street’s quarterly reporting pressures, BrightRidge maintains strong reserves and cash flows to provide the best possible services at the lowest possible cost — not the best possible returns to shareholders at the expense of service offered.

“Cutting service levels and employees are two main ways to cut costs, particularly in an investor-owned setting,” Dykes said. “With a Public Power model, we have maintained high service levels while keeping headcount steady and continually meeting or exceeding customer expectations.”

As the evolution of the industry continues, BrightRidge works daily to build on its standing as a trusted energy and telecommunications adviser that delivers the best value for all its customers.