ST. PETERSBURG — The modern electric grid is undergoing a technological revolution the industry has not seen in more than a century.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Thursday, Duke Energy Florida president Alex Glenn talked about Duke's future and how it is working to improve the customer experience and expand its renewable energy holdings, such as solar.
That is a critical consideration for a company plagued by low customer satisfaction. Duke has taken its lumps in recent years, from the cost of decommissioning its broken Crystal River nuclear power plant to allegations of overbilling.
What follows are highlights of his comments to the Times, edited for space and clarity.
On why Florida lags behind other states in solar energy:
The cost of electricity is low in Florida. So it's not economic. Solar doesn't hunt economically. Rooftop-mounted solar is about two to three times the cost of our retail price of electricity. For us, solar is interesting, but battery storage and any kind of energy storage is really the game changer for our industry. Battery storage makes solar hunt.
How much do (solar panels generate electricity) during the year? It's roughly about 20 to 25 percent of the time. And when they do operate, it's intermittent because cloud cover comes in or you've got some afternoon thunderstorms. And they operate between about 9:30 in the morning and about 4 in the afternoon and then they ramp down very quickly. When do our customers use most of their electricity? Morning and evening.
In the summer, our peak is 4:30 in the afternoon to about 7 in the evening. So solar's not working. It's producing power when we don't really need it. So if we have battery storage, if I can take that, a carbon-free resource and I can store it at noon and then push it to the peak, I don't have to run my least efficient, higher-cost power plant at a time when I'm paying the most for fuel during that peak time.
On the 2013 decision by Duke to reorganize, or reroute, its meter reading system. The change bumped some people into a higher rate tier because the company added days to their billing cycles. Duke absorbed $2.6 million in extra customer charges after complaints:
The billing reroute issue was an excellent wakeup call, for me in particular. When we looked at the entire reroute, actually, more customers as a whole were probably $8 million better off, (with) lower bills. But there were some customers who got bumped into the second tier and they got an additional $3 on their bill. Maybe a large commercial customer got $15 or $20 on their bill additional. We didn't think about that. We thought that this is net positive. This is a good thing. It's going to be more efficient billing. We didn't have a clue looking at our individual customers and the individual impact. And that was an excellent wakeup call of how this thing and other competitors — not other utilities, but other competitors — how they treat their customers.
On customer satisfaction:
Over the course of the last five years, they've improved significantly in all areas, most notably in our corporate citizenship and our communications and in our power quality and reliability. But they are not where they need to be.
Has there been a cultural shift inside Duke?
I would say that there was. I would say there has been a cultural line shift that customer service is not a department. It's an individual employee responsibility, from our linemen to me.
On modernizing the grid:
We have to … modernize the grid. It's been a one-way system for 120 years, and there haven't been a lot of technological changes. And we've got to generate with cleaner energy. What does that mean? Investing in technology. First is automated meter infrastructure, smart meters. And one thing that's critically important about that is that it gives us an opportunity to offer products and services to our customers that they really want.
One thing that improves your customer satisfaction and loyalty is if a customer can pick their own due date on their bill. That's never something we thought about before. I am going to have a different rate structure that gives me a higher (electricity) price during peak (usage). But I'm going to be able to tell my appliances that you're going to wash the dishes at midnight. I'm going to turn off my refrigerator every 20 minutes in the evening, and I'm going to get paid for that. I think you're going to have more control, you're going to have more choice. I think that's the utility of the future.
Contact William R. Levesque at email@example.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.