We often talk with utility customers who are considering the classic build versus buy decision for software. Should they use their own utility IT staff, or a subcontractor, to build and maintain custom software? Or should they partner with a vendor with a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software application that can be configured for their specific needs?
As an example, let’s consider the options for a utility that wants to provide their customers with an online application processing portal for a business process such as distributed energy resource (DER) interconnection. In this case, the utility is typically trying to solve the following challenges:
- Efficiently managing an increasing volume of DER applications – As volumes increase, manual and paper processes can overwhelm existing staff. The typical indicator of this problem, in addition to staffing issues, is that application processing time (between application submittal and permission to operate (PTO)) climbs to a level that inspires applicant complaints and/or regulatory pressure.
- New regulatory requirements – A prominent example here is the NY REV process, which requires NY utilities to have an Interconnection Online Application Portal (IOAP) in place before the end of 2017.
- Enhanced customer service focus – Many utilities focused on providing best-in-class customer service see their role as enabling customer choice for a range of energy options, including adoption of DERs. These utilities are choosing to “get ahead of the curve” and adopt an online interconnection tool to improve customer service. This is particularly common with municipal and cooperative utilities.
To solve these challenges, each utility will develop their own decision criteria as they search for the best solution to meet their goals. Three criteria we frequently hear are the ability for the solution to:
- Accommodate the utility’s own unique processes
- Meet deployment timelines
- Be adaptable or “future proof”
Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas
“Our utility has unique business processes.”
Many utilities feel that their business processes are so unique, the only way to accommodate those processes is to build a custom solution. However, building a custom solution can lock the utility in to those unique business processes.
What happens when an executive attends a benchmarking session with another utility and picks up new best practices? Or when regulations change? Or when new technologies (e.g., Smart Inverters) are introduced? In these cases, business process improvements can require a new utility IT project to rewrite or add new code. This process can be an even higher hurdle if the original developer is not available and the new team has to interpret and unpack the old code before enabling the business process updates.
Alternatively, with a commercial-off-the-shelf software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution like PowerClerk®, chances are good that other utility customers have already implemented similar “best practice” process changes. In fact, the PowerClerk team has regular user group sessions where peer utilities share best practices and lessons learned. Further, many innovative best practices are embodied in PowerClerk’s forms and workflow right out-of-the-box.
This community of users, including large and small utilities that represent more than a third of DER interconnection applications processed in the U.S. in 2016, is a very powerful advantage to PowerClerk customers. PowerClerk has been architected to make configuration of workflows and forms, upfront and after launching a program, intuitive for business users. This means that PowerClerk provides utilities with the flexibility they need to effectively manage truly unique processes.
The key takeaway here is that custom developed solutions are designed to support a specific process and workflow. A good SaaS application is designed to be flexible and easily configured. Your processes will change over time—don’t lock yourself in!
“We need an online portal running by October!”
In cases where interconnection application growth is spinning out of control, or regulations require an online portal by a certain date, some utilities think the fastest way to launch is to build their own custom portal. However, many utilities have experienced just the opposite.
One large utility in the Southwestern U.S. recently went from signed contract to production of their PowerClerk portal within 45 days. A few utilities have gone live within a month.
The PowerClerk team has a repeatable process—proven with more than 35 utility customers and more than 100 DER programs—to support this. The process to implement a program within PowerClerk includes:
- Gaining access to a sample version (“sandbox”) of PowerClerk for evaluation, testing and practice
- Sandbox orientation and training (based on pre-configured best practice workflow and form examples)
- Program design (self-service configuration supported by our team)
- Migration from sandbox to production
- User acceptance training and testing
- Pilot launch
- Public launch
Consider this: Your internal IT team knows your utility and systems, but a best-in-class SaaS development team has “been there, done that” with multiple utilities’ interconnection online application portals. When a utility works with an experienced SaaS team—like our PowerClerk team—they benefit from proven software, lessons learned from similar projects, an experienced support team, and a repeatable process and track record.
“We need to future-proof our applications”
Some utilities have the perception that since their requirements will grow over time, they should build their own “basic” solution then add to it over time. In the case of a DER interconnection application portal, future add-ons might include:
- Addition of electronic signatures and payments
- Incorporating new review workflow (such as advanced technical screens) and requirements
- Integration with a complimentary system, such as a customer information system (CIS), geographic information system (GIS), data warehouse, distribution planning system, etc.
Each of these add-ons require programming and technical skillsets that may be scarce and/or fully dedicated to other projects in internal utility IT teams. Your add-on project may go into a queue, or require a new external contractor who must re-learn the existing platform.
On the other hand, SaaS applications are perfect vehicles for this type of phased approach to implementation. In fact, each of the “add-ons” mentioned above are either already running in production or are under development with one or more of our PowerClerk customers. So, rather than starting from scratch with a custom build, our utility customers can test and then turn on existing functionality when they are ready.
Why Reinvent the Wheel?
Best practices, speed of deployment, and future proofing are three key factors in favor of SaaS solutions for common business processes. In the specific case of DER Interconnection, PowerClerk provides a purpose-built, fully featured SaaS application proven successful at more than 35 leading utilities and agencies. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Take advantage of the best practices already built for your peer utilities. Talk with us to get started.
Want to learn more about our customers’ success?
Hear directly from program managers at Southern California Edison and Tucson Electric Power as they describe how they re-engineered their interconnection processes to achieve a range of benefits, from drastic reductions in interconnection processing time, to increased transparency, better inter-department collaboration, simplified reporting and improved customer service.