Xcel customer notification system to save time, energy

Xcel Energy Inc. plans to go live with an automated notification system next week that's expected to help the Minneapolis-based power company alert industrial and commercial customers that they need to cut back on their electricity consumption up to 60 percent faster than traditional methods.

The system, called EnvoyProfiles, will be used to notify 2,700 companies in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North and South Dakota that participate in the utility's energy reduction savings program. Xcel Energy commercial and industrial customers who take part in the program qualify for lower energy rates by agreeing to cut electricity use during peak periods.

The EnvoyProfiles system, from Bedford, Mass.-based EnvoyWorldWide Inc., allows Xcel Energy customers to choose to receive notifications via e-mail, pager or cell phone text pager. Xcel Energy will contact customers using Dual Tone Multiple Frequency and automatic speech-recognition capabilities to help them confirm that they're aware of the energy control period.

Xcel Energy purchased the system in December and tested it with half of the customers enrolled in the energy reduction savings program, said Bill Gruen, a product manager for the energy company in Denver. The company plans to test the system again on Friday with all the customers of its energy-reduction savings program before putting it into production next week.

Prior to deploying EnvoyProfiles, Xcel Energy relied on a two-part process to contact customers in the energy reduction program, said Gruen. Under that system, the company first used autodialing software to try to reach customers by phone. If the company didn't succeed in reaching customers via the autodialing system, said Gruen, customer service representatives would place calls to customers until contact was made.

But that approach sometimes took hours, said Gruen. So if Xcel Energy made a decision at, say, 9 a.m. on a hot summer day to ask program participants to curtail their power usage by 1 p.m., some participants might not get the message until noon and would have only an hour to make the changes needed to reduce their company's electricity consumption.

By comparison, the EnvoyProfiles system "has massive bandwidth for the amount of calls that can go out; everything can happen within a matter of minutes to contact all 2,700 customers," said Gruen.

In justifying the EnvoyProfiles system, Xcel Energy evaluated its manpower and systems costs and determined that it would be more cost-effective to use EnvoyProfiles, though Gruen declined to provide details. But he did say that Xcel Energy isn't paying a flat fee to use the system.

"The higher the number of power interruptions, the higher the cost to run this system, but then the higher the savings on the personnel side," Gruen said.

Xcel Energy expects the system to help increase the efficiency of its customer notifications by 50 percent to 66 percent, said Gruen. "In electricity distribution, dispatch is important because electricity is about constant delivery," said Gruen. "This really whittles down the time it takes us to saving and adding capacity on the hottest and coldest days of the year."

Xcel Energy's deployment of the EnvoyProfiles system isn't unique, since U.S. energy companies have increasingly turned to advanced outbound communications systems with its customers since the California energy crisis in 2000, said Zarko Sumic, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc. Another vendor in this space that's also gaining "traction" is Par3 Communications Inc. in Seattle, said Sumic.

Gruen added that Xcel Energy plans to use the automated notification system for participants in the company's natural gas energy reduction savings program beginning in January.

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