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Citizens Energy Group on Championing Clean Energy as a Social Cause

When environmental protection is everybody's business

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Kindra Cooper

Citizens Energy Group

When Citizens Energy Group bought water and wastewater assets from the City of Indianapolis, it came with a Consent Decree the city had signed with the Environmental Protection Agency requiring it to invest $2 billion in water and sewer projects for safe drinking water, system reliability and environmental protection.   

The company went from being the “cute and cuddly” clean energy provider to a consolidated utility company that had no choice but to raise rates on its customers. The city’s old combined sewers were at risk of overflow – storm sewers and sanitary sewers are meant to be separate, but when it rains they overflow and pollute rivers and streams – and reparations needed to be done immediately.

Citizens Energy Group “It created a whole new dynamic with the same customer base because we consolidated all the utilities under one [company],” Curtis Popp, VP of customer operations, told CCW Digital at Verint Engage 2019 in Orlando, Florida.

While most people are receptive to switching from traditional electricity to natural gas, they’re more sensitive about reusing wastewater, because “there’s no substitute for water and it’s essential to life and it goes into your body,” said Popp.

As the world’s only utility company founded as a public charitable trust, anyone who lives in the vicinity of Citizens’ service territory is a “beneficiary,” meaning they each own part of the energy resource assets, which is not the same as equity. Occasionally, when a beneficiary moves out of Marion County they’ll call Citizens Energy asking if they can sell their stake, Popp says with a chuckle.

Given its legal structure, the company differs from other municipal or privately owned utilities, which are typically beholden to investors and politicians. Instead, the only people they answer to are their beneficiaries.

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“The beneficiaries literally own our assets and we are just temporary stewards of those assets,” said Popp. “We’re obligated to serve them well, to be responsible with their dollars and deliver excellent service every possible way we can.”

Given the upfront costs associated with being environmentally responsible, Citizens Energy Group has to be transparent with its customers about the infrastructure investments, and every rate hike has to be justified. On the back-end, rates are set based on revenue requirements – zero profit is made from natural gas, which is sold at the same rate as its wholesale price.

“If you live in certain parts of town you get why we’re doing it,” explained Popp, who joined the company as a project engineer in 1985, “but if you’re not in an affected area and you just see your rates going up, what else can we do but try and elevate your customer experience?”

They doubled down on digital enhancements to help the company communicate more easily with its customers and vice versa. First, a focus group-style customer journey mapping exercise where the customer operations team invited customers to journey-map their current customer experience and describe their ideal one.

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“We armed every single employee with eight best practices for customer support,” said Popp. “From there we generated a bunch of ideas in different departments.”

They introduced webchat and became the “first” utility company to allow recurring credit card payments with no fee. Then the team installed payment kiosks outside the general office and created an online alert center for customers who signed up to receive email or text notifications for bills due, payment notifications, and notice of upcoming outages due to planned or unplanned work.

“Most of the time we’ll post the project manager’s name and their cellphone number,” said Popp. “So if I have an outage on my street and I can’t get to my house because the street’s been torn up I can go online, find the project manager’s name and call.”

The company recently introduced an online diagnostic tool called Water Wizard with self-guided questions to tell you what to do if your water is discolored, tastes strange or runs irregularly. It hasn’t entirely replaced the company’s water quality hotline of old – a cellphone the employees passed around evenings and weekends to take customer calls – but it has reduced incidences of customers calling at 2AM to report that their water “tastes funny.”

Meanwhile, another online tool shows a breakdown of your bill and explains rate adjustments from fixing mains and sewage systems. Customers can ask questions via chatbot and receive energy and water conservation tips.

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“We’ve been very transparent, we get beat up quite a bit every time there’s a rate case, but we’re also pretty proud to tell stories (of accomplishments),” said Popp. “Last week we announced that we’ve already prevented over 1 billion gallons of raw sewage from dumping into the rivers and sewers.”

Currently, Indianapolis has 152 overflow points as a result of haphazard sewage infrastructure once used by most cities.

“You have to explain to your customers, ‘You’re paying for the sins of your fathers, but it’s the right thing to do,’” said Popp. “If you really want to have a good, healthy city in the future you can’t have crap going in the river.”

Popp explained that utility rates are calculated much like health insurance, the healthy subsidize the sick and your premium isn’t necessarily based on your individual health profile. Citizens Energy just filed a wastewater increase last month, but it also put in a request for a low-income rate, a radical departure from traditional rate-making practices of utility companies.

“Poverty is a huge issue in Indianapolis,” says Popp, citing a statistic that if you were to tally up the population living at or below poverty in Indianapolis, it would represent the third largest city in the state of Indiana.  

“If you’re poor your need for water, warmth and shelter doesn’t go away. It just means we’re taking a bigger and bigger percentage of your take-home pay.”

Popp said he and his team have been mulling affordability and Citizens’ stake in it going forward.

“We’re a small part of this, but poverty, crime, sanitation and how you treat the environment are interrelated,” he said. “If somebody is having trouble paying their utility bill, I guarantee it they’re having trouble paying for groceries, or they have to choose between the two.”