Last month, Ocala, Fla., started a voluntary pilot program for residential utility customers to prepay for their electricity — a set up that empowers citizens and saves money for the city utility and its customers.

The service is likened to buying gas at the pump: You buy what you need when you need it.

The idea stems from a story that Larry Novak, assistant city manager of utilities, read in a trade publication. “The customer of the utility had come home and realized her lights were out, and she pulled out her laptop because it was battery powered,” he said. “She went online with her utility and put another $200 on her account. Within another 10 minutes, her lights were on — and she never had to contact the utility. That fascinated us.”

Smart Meter Upgrade

Ocala can offer the new service because smart meters recently were installed throughout the city. Unlike traditional meters, smart meters support two-way communication between the city utility and its customers, and a portion of the meters can automatically disconnect and reconnect electric service — an essential feature for the plan to work.

“About 12,000 of our 76,000 meters carry a feature called automatic disconnect, where the mainframe can tell the meter when to shut off service and turn it back on.”

The prepaid service will be available to select customers, like apartment complexes where there’s frequent turnover. “We installed a lot of the automatic meters there to prevent the need to send a [utility] truck out,” Novak said. “Then it occurred to us that for people with bad billing problems who are getting cut and reconnected a lot, it would cut down the cost of [reconnect fees].”

Ocala Utility Services uses Exceleron Software’s Prepaid Account Management System to administer the program. “Exceleron was given access to our database for the smart meters and as a customer pays even just to start service, they can send an instruction through the meter to turn on service,” Novak said. The company also monitors customer usage, and when the money runs out, either the customer adds more money, or the service disconnects.

Billing Issues

The pilot was slated to start in May, but was postponed due to issues with department’s old customer information system (its billing system), said Project Manager Chad Lynch. The department will upgrade to a new system in another year, but it didn’t want to wait for the new one to start the service. “We’re kind of having to do two systems at once,” he said, “so it’s taking a little longer than we thought it was going to.”

The current customer information system from PeopleSoft hasn’t been upgraded in years, Lynch said, so the department lacks Web services, among other things. The new system, from Cogsdale Corp., will support Web transactions and make other improvements.

Both Novak and Gary Wilson, manager of Strategic Initiatives for Ocala Utility Services, say the pilot won’t start until they’re sure the customer information system is functioning properly.

On the whole, Residents seem interested in the prepay option. “We’re getting a lot of interest, especially out of high-school kids getting ready to graduate,” Wilson said. “I think the younger kids can grasp the concept of not waiting until the end of the month, and then having to struggle with a big bill, or even worse having the power shut off because they can’t make the payment, then compounding that with reconnect and disconnect fees.”

Thanks to the pilot, participating residents who need to replenish their account can do so online, over the phone or in person at the utilities’ office, or at local payment centers.

“This has the potential to really change the way we do business — at least for the set of customers who will find this convenient,” Novak said. “Customers want choices. They want to be able to sculpt things to the major comfort of their lifestyle, and this is another big step in that direction.”

Jessica Mulholland, Web Editor Jessica Mulholland  |  Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland has been a writer and editor for more than 10 years. She was previously the editor of Emergency Management magazine, and she loves that she can incorporate her love of photography into her work as a part of the Government Technology editorial team. Jessica can be reached at jmulholland@govtech.com and @jbronwen on Twitter.