Seattle City Council Readies Update to City Light's Strategic Plan as Long-Term Challenges Loom

Breaking down how declining demand, customer service, workforce issues and more will impact City Light for years to come
 
 

This story originally ran on SCC Insight. 

Next week the City Council begins the process of reviewing and revising the six-year Strategic Plan for Seattle City Light. They have a lot of issues to dig through.

Rather than letting it run in place for the full six years, SCL’s Strategic Plan has received a scheduled course-correction every two years since the first version was adopted in 2012. The Council has created a special Select Committee to shepherd the process through this year, chaired by Council member Teresa Mosqueda (whose standing committee generally oversees SCL). The Select Committee has three meetings scheduled over the next six weeks: May 31, June 14, and June 28.

Next week Mayor Durkan will transmit the proposed 2019-2024 Strategic Plan to the Council, kicking off the review process. They have already published a preview with the key initiatives they intend to pursue.

The Strategic Plan is informed by several sources of information. One is outreach: to a variety of customers, to employees, and to other stakeholders. The utility recently published a summary of the feedback it received from those sources. SCL also has a Review Panel, which it consults regularly and particularly when it comes to rate-setting. And in the years between Strategic Plan updates, SCL updates its Integrated Resource Plan, which triangulates its power generation assets, power contracts, expected load, and conservation investments so it understands how much power it needs to generate in order to reliably supply power to its customers over the next 20 years.

This year, based on all of these inputs, SCL has generated a “SWOT” analysis — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats — to help guide its choice of strategic initiatives for the next six years.

The utility undoubtedly has strengths, including control over sizable amounts of clean, relatively inexpensive renewable energy in the form of hydroelectric power; reliable infrastructure that has led to high marks from customers on overall power reliability; and a trained workforce. But it also has many issues it needs to address:

  • - Declining demand. For several years, SCL continued to predict that the amount of power its customers used would go up as the city grew and the economy boomed; but the reality was just the opposite as the city aggressively adopted energy conservation measures (particularly lighting). Finally last year the utility admitted that it needed to scrap its old model and write a new one, and the new Strategic Plan contains the first predictions from that new model. It looks back to 2011 to “weather adjust” the actual power load, then predict that forward as a new baseline that incorporates city growth as well as adoption of conservation methods. The new trend line, for the first time, predicts a slow, long-term decrease.

The good news is that (if true) the city doesn’t need to find or build new power sources. The bad news is that SCL has a substantial fixed-cost overhead because of all of the infrastructure required to generate, distribute and deliver power, so if load goes down then rates must go up to balance the budget.

  • - Customer service.  The utility’s switch to its new NCIS customer-service and billing system has not gone smoothly on top of other complexities as the city grows (i.e. more new meters) and more homes and business deploy their own solar power installations. As of earlier this year SCL had a significant backlog of unresolved customer requests. There are also reports that the new AMI digital meters that wirelessly report their readings have not been integrated into the billing system yet, requiring SCL employees to re-enter the meter readings by hand.
  • - Workforce issues. According to the SWOT, SCL is not doing well on succession planning. It has a lack of entry-level positions and an aging workforce that is rapidly reaching retirement.

It also has narrowly-defined job descriptions with “siloed” employees that limit their flexibility. As an example, with the new AMI meters being deployed, meter-readers are supposed to be retrained for other positions, but that effort has apparently fallen flat. SCL also complains that the now-centralized city HR department is not tailored to meet SCL’s specialized needs. SCL also has issues with workplace discrimination and harassment. To be fair, it is working some of the issues: while women are under-represented in its current workforce, it has been leveraging its internship program to try to recruit more.

  • - Behind the technology curve. SCL’s customer-facing web page was due for a retrofit as part of the rollout of NCIS, but that project also has stalled. Employees raise concerns about slow and antiquated operations, data systems, and cybersecurity.

SCL’s four priorities listed in its Strategic Plan Preview address some of these concerns

  1. 1. Customer service, including a 24/7 “customer relationship hub expanding customer access to information and assistance.”
  2. 2. Affordability and rate stability, including restructuring rates “to better reflect the cost of serving its customers.”
  3. 3. Clean energy and environmental stewardship.
  4. 4. Continuing progress on its core business: employee safety; security, emergency preparedness and disaster recovery programs; employee hiring, training and retention; relicensing hydropower projects; enhanced grid performance and cybersecurity; and asset preservation.

Unfortunately, none of this directly addresses the workforce culture issues around discrimination and harassment. We also need to wait until the Mayor send to the Plan to the Council to learn their proposal for rate increases in the coming years, as demand continues to decline.

We’ll learn much more next week, when the proposed Strategic Plan update is sent to the Council, and the Select Committee holds its first discussion on May 31.

Kevin Schofield wrote about Seattle City Light is addressing long-term challenges in a feature story in the November 2017 issue of Seattle Business magazine. Read the full story here

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