When Arizona Public Service started looking into prepay service, it thought that the best way to go about it would be to buy a new customer information software system.

But as the utility investigated a new CIS, it found that it would actually get more functionality by incorporating add-ons, rather than putting in an entirely new system. The main problem? Cost.

“The bottom line is it’s too big, too costly and it takes three-plus years to replace the CIS,” Jassi Arora, director of solutions strategy at Bridge Energy Group, a consulting firm, said during a Greentech Media webinar. “There is also no business case for incremental benefits.”

Many large utilities already have more than $100 million sunk into their CIS systems, according to GTM Research. No doubt many of them are looking at ways to integrate all the functions their smart meters and other smart grid systems can bring them with the CIS they have -- not the CIS they wish they had.

Arora, who worked with APS to transform its current CIS, said that the key is to create a foundation where exchange between new and legacy programs can happen with a standards-based approach. Then, create systems where customer programs can be launched quickly.

For APS, however, launching prepay has taken years. At first, the Phoenix-based utility, which serves more than one million people, was waiting for its smart meter implementation to be complete to make the prepay system more robust. Because of regulatory requirements, the utility also started with a pilot in 2010.

Prepay is not the only pilot that APS was trying as it rolled out AMI, according to Kelley Coats, APS's customer programs department leader. The utility is also doing residential pilots with peak event pricing, General Electric's Nucleus in-home displays, direct load control and smart phone apps. APS already has one of the most robust voluntary time-of-use pricing programs in the country.

With a combination of smart meters and an upgraded CIS, APS’s prepay system allows people to choose prepay and track their usage via an online web portal or text or email alerts. Just like other APS programs, people can pay online, in an office or at a kiosk.

Kelley said it was important for the utility that prepay was not a separate rate. Even if people are on a time-of-use plan, they can still opt for prepay. There is also no deposit. Instead, customers need to keep a balance above $0 or the power is shut off. However, there are no late fees or reconnection fees.

When people sign up, they are given a packet of information explaining the program, as well as ways to save energy. But it is really the prepay alerts, that were possible because of the upgrades to the CIS that make the program successful.

Another feature that APS has added to its CIS is to allow people to pick their billing date. “Customers that can pick their due date are more satisfied,” said Coats. It’s also a win for the utility, which benefits by not receiving as many late payments.

The combination of AMI and a retooled CIS also allowed the utility to cut down on the time between meter reads the time they’re processed in the CIS. Currently, meter reads might be held in the CIS for three to five days, but the change in the system will allow them to be processed by billing as soon as they get into the CIS. The change is estimated to save $7 million per year.

Bridge Group’s Arora said that utilities should look into third-party applications that give useful visualization of data to the utility’s backend and to customers. “It’s impossible to build those in-house,” he said. Coats agreed that, while they built their own prepay system, the overall options of upgrading the CIS with specific applications in mind has given the utility more flexibility moving forward.

Cloud computing also has the ability to revolutionize a CIS, said Arora. Utilities are just starting to embrace cloud-based solutions, which can be far cheaper and offer more functionality than traditional solutions. For most utilities, they simply cannot wait for the multiple years it takes to migrate to a new CIS, nor can they justify the huge cost.  

Arora said that many CIS systems are still only piloting customer programs that need to be put in place now, like prepay, demand response programs and processing interval data. He challenged utilities to look at their needs, as APS did, and then move quickly to find a solution in the marketplace. “The big question is, can you wait?” he said. “If you can’t, you have to ask, ‘What is the way forward?'"