By David Kligman
SAN FRANCISCO—Customer service is every bit as important to PG&E as it is to the large businesses the utility serves, President Chris Johns said today (July 18) in a speech to representatives of some of the country’s biggest companies.
How PG&E serves its customers isn’t different, Johns said, than how Target seeks to deliver outstanding value and a great experience for shoppers. Or how McDonald’s strives to provide consistent food in a clean, welcoming environment.
After all, PG&E is in business to provide safe, reliable and affordable gas and electricity service to all its customers, businesses included.
“We have to serve our customers every day in the same way you serve your customers every day,” Johns said.
Gathering of utilities, large companies
Johns was the keynote speaker at a two-day regional meeting of utilities and their large national customers. The purpose is to bring together utilities like PG&E and large business customers to discuss how issues facing the energy industry will impact those customers. Among the other participating companies were Chevron, Safeway, Kaiser Permanente, Walgreens and PepsiCo.
“Many of you are great examples of the change that has occurred even in just the last 10 years,” he said. “It used to be we would supply the electricity to you as a customer, we would send you a bill and somebody—probably in your accounts payable department—would pay the bill. And that was about the end of it.
“Nowadays many of you in this room are filling positions focused solely on how do we procure our energy, how do we manage that relationship, how are we managing that cost.”
And reliability is critical, he said.
“For many of you who are large customers, one momentary interruption in a production process can cost millions of dollars and can shut you down because of the equipment needs,” Johns said.
Reliability starts with infrastructure
Johns said that for utilities, reliability begins with infrastructure—the pipelines and power lines, many of which still date to the post-World War II years. There’s a general acknowledgement that those upgrades need to be done, he said.
More than half of the electric utility plants in the United States are more than 30 years old and half of the power poles are between 30 and 50 years old.
The question, Johns said, is how to pay for all these essential infrastructure improvements.
“The industry as a whole has to work together with its customers and with its regulators to find out ways to figure out how you go about doing that while keeping it affordable,” he said.
Already, PG&E invests about $4.5 billion a year toward its infrastructure. Some recent upgrades to its electrical system include:
- Replacing more than 130,000 feet of overhead wire and underground cable last year
- Upgrading key substations, which act as the critical bridge between PG&E’s transmission and distribution system
- Repairing or replacing the 400 worst performing circuits—the ones that lead to a disproportionate number of outages
Upgrades without outages
Following his remarks, Johns answered questions from the group. He was asked whether business customers could expect more planned outages—when utilities like PG&E take electric lines out of service while performing necessary maintenance— with all the infrastructure improvements.
His response was that PG&E is performing many more of the upgrades “hot,” or on energized lines, which means power will continue without any interruptions.
“In California, in PG&E’s service territory, you’re going to see less planned outages,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’ll go away totally. And that puts more pressure on my team to communicate and plan and make sure that it’s not done on Friday afternoon but on Saturday if somebody’s not open on Saturday or whenever it makes the most sense to do that.”
PG&E hosts customer focus groups, Johns said, and it’s important for him and other company leaders to listen to the concerns of customers. Joining him at the meeting from PG&E were Helen Burt (senior vice president and chief customer officer), Tom Bottorff (senior vice president, regulatory relations) and Steve Malnight (vice president of customer energy solutions).
Johns called customers’ feedback a gift.
“Even though many of you may not have a choice, we still have to act and operate as if we have to earn your business every single day,” he said. “They told us the things we could do better. They said, ‘We want you to be easier to do business with. We want to be able to read and understand your bills. We want you to help us manage our energy costs down to a lower amount. And we want you to be part of the communities that we live in.’”
For Judy Corrigan of Xcel Energy, a utility that serves customers in eight states, the gathering is an opportunity to hear from customers firsthand. McDonald’s, for example, has 1,200 restaurants in California alone.
“Their [electric] load is up there and they have unique needs,” Corrigan said. “We depend on these meetings to reconnect with them and find out the things that we can be doing better.”
So does PG&E.
E-mail David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com