Empowering Consumers
August 2nd, 2012 by Elisabeth Kramer
Customer service representative Renita Cuevas explains the prepay program to a Midstate Electric Cooperative member. Photo courtesy of Midstate Electric Cooperative.

Customer service representative Renita Cuevas explains the prepay program to a Midstate Electric Cooperative member. Photo courtesy of Midstate Electric Cooperative.

Money and energy saved thanks to tools offered by MyUsage power awareness program

Last winter, Doug Buchanan got a message from his utility that his electricity use was higher than normal. The usual suspects—broken thermostat, long showers, extra laundry—were not to blame.

“Nothing was out of the ordinary,” he recalls.

Eventually, Doug crawled under his home and discovered a broken hot water pipe.

“Had I not checked, it would have been a month until I found it,” he says.

The find likely saved Doug hundreds of dollars, all thanks to new electricity monitoring options provided by the MyUsage power awareness program.

The online system developed by Exceleron Software allows customers to better monitor their electricity consumption. Among a handful of U.S. utilities offering MyUsage are two Oregon co-ops, Lane Electric Cooperative, based in Eugene, and Midstate Electric Cooperative, based in La Pine.

The latter, where Doug works as customer service supervisor, began offering MyUsage to the entire co-op in 2011. Since then, more than 1,000 of Midstate’s 18,200 customers have joined.

The option that saved Doug money last winter, known as PowerView at Midstate and as myVIEW at Lane, allows customers to sign up for text messages, emails and/or phone calls detailing exactly how much the day’s power cost.

That kind of specific notification leads to subtle, yet effective, changes in energy consumption, explains Ruth Pomplin of Lane Electric.

“I have seen people who have averaged $10 or $12 a day in the winter make changes by simply turning their thermostat down,” says Ruth, Lane’s credit and customer service supervisor. “This has really been a wake-up call (for consumers) to see that ‘Wow, when I put those Christmas lights up, the next day I saw the difference.’”

Or just how much a broken hot water pipe can tack on to daily electricity use.

At Lane Electric, 350 customers receive myVIEW messages, while 400 opt for MyUsage’s second program: a prepay account.

This pay-as-you-go plan—called myCHOICE by Lane Electric, PowerPay by Midstate—allows members to purchase electricity as needed. It is left up to the individual customer when to deposit money and in what amount. Whatever the choice, when the account runs dry, the lights go off.

“We’ve had a lot of feedback from customers saying, ‘Wow, this really works for me,’” Ruth says of myCHOICE. “You can pay $5 a day; you can pay $10 a week; you can fit it to your pay schedule. It’s just like prepaid minutes on a phone.”

At both Lane and Midstate, the prepay option has drawn attention because of the low start-up cost. Rather than having members pay the standard deposit, which can range from $150 to more than $1,000 at Lane Electric, a prepay account requires a one-time fee: $25 at Lane, $65 at Midstate ($60 for current members).

Since introducing MyUsage in 2010, Lane Electric members have saved an estimated $246,900 in deposits by electing to go on the myCHOICE plan.

The flexibility of prepaying puts consumers in control, meaning fewer surprises when that bill arrives at the end of the month, Ruth says.

Daily tracking also can provide proof as to what techniques save energy. For example, when installing more efficient windows or a new heat pump, consumers can track just how much or how little they save, says Dave D’Avanzo, Lane Electric’s manager of member and regional affairs.

“They can see what their energy consumption does when they make an investment in their home,” he adds.

The concept of prepaid power is the norm for an estimated 6 million customers in 40 countries, but has yet to inspire the same level of interest in the United States. Fewer than 100,000 meters (a little less than 1 percent of all U.S. electricity consumers) opt to pay ahead.

Judging by the popularity of MyUsage, Ruth says that attitude may be changing. Other utilities have expressed interest in the system, though MyUsage’s requirement of using an advanced metering infrastructure prohibits many co-ops from joining.

Still, between Lane and Midstate, more than 30,000 Oregon accounts currently have access to MyUsage—a number expected to grow in the years ahead.

“I think you’re going to see it more and more,” Ruth says. “What MyUsage really does is empower people. If you can save $20 or $30 on your electric bill just by having information at your fingertips, I bet you’d have a better use for that money.”

Questions?

Why the different names?
It is left up to the utility to title its respective MyUsage programs.

What does it cost the utility?
The usage monitoring program (myVIEW or PowerView) is free for both consumer and utility. The prepay option (myCHOICE or PowerPay) charges the utility start-up and monthly fees.

How do I sign-up?
Visit www.myusage.com for a state-by-state guide of available utilities.