For years, bill analysts from BC Hydro in Canada tamed a mountain of interval load data to produce monthly bills for the utility’s 131 largest customers: a labour-intensive process. Using a patchwork of Fox Pro, Microsoft Word and a home-grown interface with the metering system, the team produced bills worth more than US$500M every year, virtually by hand.

BC Hydro needed a more flexible and automated billing system for its transmission customers, some of which spend US$1M a month with the company. Under the old system, bills of this size would have to be painstakingly checked and rechecked by the billing team, to ensure that no data had lost its way between the spreadsheet programme and word processor.

‘There were significant and complicated steps in between Fox Pro and Word,’ says David De Yagher, manager of transmission customer billing. ‘Many of the bills required extra attention each month to ensure that they were accurate.’

Rate changes were another continual headache. The group had to rely on programmers to make adjustments, a tedious process that could take weeks. ‘The system we had was not scaleable to handle a large customer population,’ says De Yagher. ‘It was all we could do to get 131 customers billed.’

This laborious process had another Achilles’ heel: stranded customer data. A number of departments within the company (load forecasting, sales and marketing and accounting) needed this data – the quicker the better. Revenue and consumption data were keyed into another system for this purpose but the data entry often took a couple of weeks, which led to a certain amount of tension between the departments. As the utility maintained its database manually, the data was constantly under scrutiny and in danger of losing its credibility.

Calling in the expert

BC Hydro went to Lodestar in search of a modern billing and settlement system that could cope with a large amount of consumption data. Lodestar software is used by more than 100 energy providers in North America. Around 20% of US energy customers receive their billing through the company’s software.

BC Hydro selected Lodestar’s BillingExpert. This is a complex billing engine that gathers billing determinants for large utility customers and can be used to evaluate different rate designs.

The company says that since it installed BillingExpert, the monthly battle has been replaced with a streamlined, integrated business process. Most functions are now performed automatically, yet the utility retains quality control by reviewing each invoice before it is sent out. The group is enjoying a newfound freedom.

‘What we see so far we love,’ says De Yagher. ‘We find it very flexible. We’re really getting used to being able to get into the rates and riders ourselves. Changes now can be added ‘on the fly’ without having to ultimately rely on our programmers. The billing analysts are comfortable making these changes themselves.’

The use of BillingExpert has also unleashed the consumption data that characterises the utility’s largest customers. Today the data is distributed across the organisation within days instead of weeks, as De Yagher explains. ‘Once you approve an invoice, all the information is stored in the tables. One of the financial groups is building a customer data warehouse with the data stored in the tables to send to all of the different stakeholders,’ he says.

Time-differentiated pricing

To maximise the use of this access to customer data, BC Hydro’s sales support group purchased LodeMap with bill calculations, a desktop software tool for calculating the economic impact of alternate load and pricing options. Using the data provided by BillingExpert, the sales support group could run ‘what if’ scenarios for account managers, evaluating various load shaping and load shifting alternatives as well as pricing models. ‘We wanted to use the same billing engine that we use to bill these large transmission accounts to perform these “what ifs”,’ says De Yagher.

The new capabilities have raised the profile of the transmission-billing group within the utility, while the improved productivity enables staff to pursue other goals. The group has already taken on billing customers who are participating in a new pilot programme to test time-of-use rates for commercial accounts. To bill the 500 customers, the group has added the equivalent of only one-half of a full time employee.

Lodestar was formed in 1978 and has become well known for its web-enabled Customer Choice Suite range of software products for energy providers.

The suite includes software for pricing and profitability analysis; an end-user application for viewing customer energy usage and costs; and a system for load profiling, reconciliation and settlement.