Our municipal utility delivers electric power services, as well as water, sewer, and storm water drainage services to approximately 50,000 citizens. Our citizens—many of them part of an affluent and well-educated retirement community and/or the Dallas-San Antonio trade corridor—expect us to provide services that are efficient, technologically current, and environmentally conscious.
Earlier this year, West Monroe Partners approached us and planted the seed about applying for a smart grid grant through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act as a means for accelerating our plans. At the time, our focus was on replacing these two critical applications—not on creating a true smart grid infrastructure. Even though we intended to use AMI technology, we weren’t sure our plans would qualify for an ARRA grant. We did recognize, however, that a smart grid grant would give us the chance to integrate and pursue several related efforts—such as adding a work management and asset management function and upgrading our electric power distribution centers—as well as to accelerate our implementation.
Based on its industry experience and observations, West Monroe Partners felt we had a good foundation: a vision, a state-of-the-art GIS system, solid three- to five-year plans, and a strong focus on maintaining service levels. In short, we had many of the right pieces of the puzzle, but we needed to put them all together. West Monroe Partners started asking us some key questions: Have you thought about doing it this way? Could you tailor your plan to address specific elements for which the Department of Energy is seeking? Through those discussions, we began to realize that an ARRA grant might not be so far beyond our reach. But, we would need help preparing and packaging a compelling grant application.
To explore the opportunity and build the necessary internal support, we brought together a group representing all parts of our business—the current AMR and CIS systems, water services, finance, systems engineering, capital improvements, and others—to look at needs and potential from all angles, not just those of the utility operations. Importantly, West Monroe Partners helped us focus beyond simply replacing systems, instead looking at this process from the perspective of what our citizens need in the future, and what we can do to offer them the best possible product.
Having strong executive sponsorship was a key to getting this process off the ground. In municipalities, it can take time to gain the necessary approvals for an effort such as this. This approval process could have set us back from the start, but our sponsors were integrally involved and understood the benefits of pursuing this opportunity. They worked with us to cut through red tape and quickly gain the support of our two boards.
With a mandate to move forward, we began in earnest in early May—about three months before the application would be due. We brought a very diverse group—from management to line workers—into one room and talked about what we want our organization to “look like” in the future. West Monroe Partners’ approach for leading this session really helped bring our team together—creating the sense of unity and support for the vision that will serve us well beyond the grant process. We also used this meeting to begin assembling the core team that will take us through the conversion.
West Monroe Partners used its established S-GAP tools to guide the process, and by the following week we had extensive and well-organized documentation to serve as the foundation for our plan and subsequently, our grant application.
Having not been through a substantial federal grant application process before, we weren’t sure how to plan for it. Through a combination of experience and established process-management tools, West Monroe Partners helped us maintain our focus on the timeline and the most relevant details. Significantly, our West Monroe Partners project team also helped us gain confidence in our plans as we moved through the process. By the end, we believed that even though ours is a small organization with a small team, we have a very sound plan that is worthy of federal stimulus funding. At no time did this feel like a vendor/client relationship; it felt like we were working with a team that was an extension of our own organization.
Today, we have a much better sense of what we want to accomplish and how we will get there—insight that will help us whether or not we receive an ARRA grant. We realize now that by simply focusing on replacing systems, we had set our sights a little too low. With today’s smart grid technologies, we can accomplish much more—and offer our citizens much more.
Kathy Ragsdale is the utility office manager for the City of Georgetown, Texas, responsible for utility billing and collection services for the City. Leticia Zavala is the project manager for the city’s smart grid grant application.