When David Hallquist joined the Vermont Electric Cooperative in 2000, he went around asking line crews during outages how long it would take for power to be restored. Whether it was three hours or 30 minutes, their answer was always accurate within minutes.

That information almost never got as far as the call center, and it certainly was never released to angry or concerned customers on the other end. “I said we need to get the customer talking to the line person,” said Hallquist, or at least getting the lineman’s information to the customer.

After the looks indicating that he was crazy subsided, the utility got down to business. The first steps involved networking the linemen, something that today might be put under the umbrella of smart grid. They put GIS out in the system, and put cell phones and laptops in every vehicle.

Outages are a big deal in Vermont. It snows a lot and there are a lot of trees. In 2011 alone, there were four qualified FEMA storms in the state. For Vermont Electric Co-op, which serves 34,000 customers, the goal starting in 2000 was clearly defined: to reduce outages and restoration time.

Many municipal and rural co-ops are more advanced in terms of smart grid when it comes to their investor-owned counterparts. For the Vermont Electric Co-op, its advancements have all come just from trying to solve the pressing problem of outages. They were clear about the problem they wanted to solve. The result, however, was a smart grid platform that has allowed for much more.

Once the linemen were more connected back to the main office, the small utility (which is actually large by rural co-op standards) put in two-way Aclara meters over powerline starting in 2005. The savings in truck rolls to read meters and improving outage response time, because of the information coming off the meters, were significant. The system was expected to pay for itself in just under five years. “After the first major storm, we realized it was going to be a lot better than that,” said Hallquist, because the smart meters gave a new level of visibility to the control center.

Just as the meters were first being installed, the Co-op’s region had one of the worst storms in its history in October 2005. There were 110 complaints filed with the Vermont Public Utility Commission -- “and no thank-you cards,” said Hallquist. It wasn’t where they wanted to be at all.

By 2007, the utility decided that it “wanted to create a pleasurable experience during an outage,” Hallquist said during a panel session during the Gridwise Global Forum in Washington, D.C.  The room erupted in laughter, but Hallquist did not.

In December 2010, an even worse storm blanketed the state. By that time, the utility had won $5.2 million in ARRA stimulus funds, as part of a $69 million package that went to the state of Vermont for smart grid projects, including metering, distribution automation and dynamic pricing pilots (which Vermont Electric Co-op is currently conducting).

In 2010, the meters had been deployed (and payback is expected well within four years, thanks to stimulus funds), and Vermont Electric Co-op had also overhauled its call centers so that there were zero abandoned or blocked calls -- down from a rate of 25 percent blockage before 2005. There was also an active Facebook page in place.

After the 2010 winter storm, there was not a single complaint to the PUC, said Hallquist, and the utility received about 150 thank-you notes via email, snail mail and through social media. “Vermonters understand that the power goes out,” said Hallquist. “It’s a question of providing the information and a two-way dialog.”

Now, the Co-op is working on customer platforms, such as an iPhone app that will be released in the first quarter of 2012. It is also running a very successful alert system through which customers can sign up to know if their bill goes over a certain amount.

Customers also have access to hourly data through a web portal called wattWATCHERS, which was built in house. The utility is also upgrading its meter communications platform, layering SmartSynch’s cellular solution on top of its PLC platform for next-generation needs, whatever those may be.

After the panel, Greentech Media asked Hallquist why other utilities, including those that are investor-owned, had trouble finding a rate case for smart grid infrastructure when his utility was able to see the payback over the course of just a few storms that affected only a few thousand customers. Hallquist said he had given this some thought and had determined that many utilities “tend to overspecify their needs.” He noted that many utilities were wrestling with 15-minute data or with providing real-time data when hourly data might be enough.

Vermont Cooperative Utility also brought in IT specialists from the start, and reorganized parts of the company to better meet the goal of improving outage restoration. During the May 2005 storm, the utility was thrilled with the outage system they were just beginning to build. However, by outlining a particular problem and trying to solve it, the Co-op has opened the door to innovation. Ever since then, Hallquist said, “We keep asking ourselves, what else can we do?”