Communications and Customer Care

Engaging customers in integrated resource planning

Integrated resource planning might sound wonky to customers, and engineers and utility staff involved know that the multiyear process is a cumbersome endeavor. Yet it is critical that public power utilities include a variety of customer perspectives in the IRP process to make sure that the community gets energy the way it wants.

“If you run [the IRP] entirely as an internally focused electrical utility process, you might find that you missed the mark, or [you] might have the dubious honor of doing it twice,” said Tom Falcone, CEO of Long Island Power Authority in New York. 

The keys to a plan that reflects the community’s desires are getting consensus on a clear goal, engaging customers early, and knowing the right amount of information to share based on customer interests.

In the customer’s shoes

Who is going to determine success for the project? What are they going to want? These are the questions Falcone said should kick off the resource planning process.

“When designing the scope of the IRP, you should know who is going to be interested in it. You don’t want to get to the end of the IRP and not have run the key scenarios or thought about how you are going to communicate it; then it is too late,” said Falcone.

This scoping helps design the back end of the plan for engineers and planning staff or consultants, Falcone said, so that they know what the plan needs to produce to answer each set of key stakeholders’ questions. He recommended thinking about how to offer information to different segments of customers based on different levels of interest and knowing the hot-button issues in your community.

“I think about my sister with a couple of kids — she doesn’t have as much focus on what power plant decisions we’re going to make. For her, the level of interest is, ‘Are you cleaning the grid, is it sustainable, are you moving in the right direction, how fast are you going?’” he explained. “That can be conveyed in your advertising, in your bill inserts, through your clean energy programs ... that might be the right touchpoint for the vast majority of customers.”

LIPA prepared and distributed communications to customers in areas where high property taxes on power plants were affecting electricity rates. LIPA also shared an information booklet with managers at power plants affected by the resource plan that explained how and when changes would impact the plant.

Falcone said utilities should plan on having “lots of ongoing meetings” with stakeholders who are going to take a deeper interest in a resource plan, such as developers, to get to know their interests.

To form its latest plan, released in 2017, LIPA held a series of town halls and one-on-one meetings with a variety of stakeholders. Falcone said that the one-on-one meetings allowed LIPA to collect the key takeaways from stakeholders with greater interest in the process and check if the plan would answer their questions. “At the end of the process, everyone was heard. Not everyone agreed with us, but a lot of people did.”

Buy-in from all stakeholders

To capture a variety of customer and community perspectives in its resource plan, for the past two planning cycles, Austin Energy in Texas has formed a community working group focused on integrated resource planning.

“We want to be able to engage every type of customer,” said Erika Bierschbach, vice president of market operations and resource planning at Austin Energy, noting that the group members include commercial and industrial customers, people who represent low-income communities, and the city’s financial department. The utility does not have a formal recruitment process for the work group and relies on the city’s utility commission and city council members to reach out to different segments of the community.

Previously, Austin Energy collected community feedback on its IRP through a task force. Bierschbach said the working group seems to be a much more engaged way of reaching different customer segments and “allows us to tap into parts of the community we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

However, she noted that participating in the work group is a hefty commitment, as members have to be available for regular meetings that can take several hours and happen two or three times a month over the course of four to six months. 

For customers who want to be engaged in the process but cannot make that time commitment, some working group meetings allow “citizen communication” time for customers to ask questions or provide feedback on the plan components.

The utility and the utility commission still drive the resource planning timeline and scenarios, but the work group reviews materials from the utility and informs what is brought forth to the city council.

Kim Doyal, a community engagement consultant for Austin Energy, noted that it is important for key accounts managers who work with high energy users like schools and hospitals, to stay on the pulse of what these customers are interested in and offer basic education about topics likely to come up in the next study cycle. “When the five-year [mark] comes around, we know who to call, we’ve done basic education, and we can go in and get specific with whatever we need to tell them,” she said.

“Because we do have an involved community here in Austin, over time, we’ve developed a structure to meet whatever those needs are out in the community,” said Doyal. “We have an internal structure that allows us to collect that feedback, put it in places where we can access it, and deliver on it.”

Keeping it long-term

Austin Energy’s planning period is five years, but the utility checks in on key metrics related to plan goals every two years. “Trying to update every two years is cumbersome and ineffective,” noted Bierschbach. “We provide metrics and KPIs — and we’re updating on a quarterly basis where we are on those goals — but we’re not trying to go out and create new goals every two years.” 

To test the waters around emerging technology or in meeting other city goals related to but not central to the utility, such as electrified transportation, Austin Energy looks to a handful of other city commissions to pilot initiatives or make recommendations. The utility keeps tabs on any interrelated goals and notes when a commission has a study going on that could inform the next resource planning process.

Falcone mentioned legislation in New York that would accelerate the state’s goal to move toward renewable energy and noted that LIPA’s long-term approach to its resource planning process means that the utility doesn’t have to adjust its plan timeline alongside changing policies. “Even when you have statewide goals that are changing a lot, they are changing the out years. What’s going to happen on the grid in 2021, 2022 is not going to change that much — we need to look at 2026, 2027. It is really the back end that is changing a lot, and you need to revise your plans for the back end.”

“Reaching out to everyone, getting everybody’s input, comes at a price,” said Bierschbach. “You need to have a base level of education, but you can’t do that for everyone in that short period of time. That’s why we try to get people in the working group that have a good base of education [and who] can bring perspectives to the team.”

Talk to a lot of people. It is very time-consuming. It’s why you don’t do it every year,” Falcone concurred.

One piece of the grid

Utilities need to ensure that resource plans encompass any state or regional efforts that might impact their service.

“It’s one grid, so we can’t totally ignore what’s going around us. It is Long Island, but we aren’t an island. We are interconnected to the rest of New York, we are connected to New England, we are connected to the PJM market,” said Falcone. “We’re still an integrated utility in a state where most utilities aren’t integrated. We can only control our resources, but other people’s decisions may very much impact our system, and we still need to plan for them.”

Falcone gave the example of New York’s push for increasing offshore wind. “We may be integrating offshore wind, but if it’s a statewide goal in a deregulated state with a wholesale market, we have to make sure that when NYISO makes market rules, those rules reflect that reality. You have to work through those processes and market signals to make sure our customers are bearing an appropriate share of the cost but not the whole cost of integrating the wind into the grid when it lands on Long Island.”

Boiling it down

Both LIPA and Austin agreed that a major part of the process revolves around distilling the wide and complex range of scenarios down to a few options for public consumption and discussion.

“There are only so many scenarios that can be run. [You] need to set reasonable expectations of what can come out of a resource plan,” said Bierschbach. “Because there are a lot of really passionate and engaged customers that we really get a lot of very good information from.”

“It’s not one scenario, but also it isn’t 500 scenarios. It’s a little bit of a Goldilocks scenario — low, medium, and high,” said Falcone. “That helps frame issues for people. That gives people a range of outcomes, and then you can talk about it from there.”

“The city can’t go in eight different directions — you have to form one [plan],” said Bierschbach. “There are different needs and wants — that’s just normal. What we have found as the most effective way to meet the larger needs of the community is to have higher-level goals that meet the needs of the community as opposed to prescriptive goals.”

“IRPs have to be driven by engineers and planning, and they have to be sound. They are very complex and have an unbelievably large number of scenarios,” said Falcone. “At the end of the day, you have to boil it down to something that someone not in the industry will understand. That means getting communications people involved early in the process, knowing what questions you are likely to get from stakeholders, and putting together the materials so that someone sitting down with you for an hour could get it,” he added.

“We’re here to serve our customers, and our job is to deliver the product that they want. And it is our job to be able to digest all of those wants and deliver a product that meets the most of those needs as possible,” said Bierschbach. “Being very specific about ‘this is what we’re going to do in this timeframe’ helps all of the customers. If we can keep our customers or public interest at a higher level, then we seem to get much more customer satisfaction overall than inefficiently spending time, resources, and money on those lower-level goals.”

Allowing for flexibility

Focusing on the overarching goals, said Bierschbach, also helps inoculate a utility from getting stuck with a technology that might be more costly and less effective than newer technology that might come onto the market after a plan is set. “Things change. We need to be able to move and change with [them]. Whatever goal our city may choose, just being able to have the nimbleness to get to that goal depending on what technology is used is proving to be more prolific, affordable, and better for the customer overall,” she said.

“Sometimes things look shiny and new, and then you don’t realize until after you’ve spent a lot of money that maybe you shouldn’t have gone that way,” said Bierschbach.

LIPA’s approach to being responsive and flexible with the use of new technology or other trends is to put out a smaller annual plan, called Utility 2.0, that “looks for the initiatives and what we’re going to do that makes a difference,” said Falcone. LIPA allows for public comment on these annual plans, which offer options for where the utility could go with electric vehicle incentives, battery storage programs, or time-of-use rates. This smaller annual plan also allows LIPA to check in on how its energy efficiency programs are doing or what customers want from them, which helps the utility gauge how well customers are helping to meet the energy efficiency and demand reduction goals set forth in its IRP.

“For anything we do, it is about transparency. Being honest with the community, telling them why we are doing what we’re doing, how it’s all going to roll out — and if it needs to change, here’s why it needs to change,” said Bierschbach.

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