Updated: August 22, 2012 6:05AM
This summer’s heat wave and power-outage-inducing thunderstorms are proving to be yet another trial-by-fire for Commonwealth Edison CEO Anne Pramaggiore, the first woman to lead Illinois’ largest utility.
Pramaggiore, who took over in February, is faced with the enormous task of repositioning a bureaucratic utility for a competitive, unpredictable and sustainable-energy age.
She concedes that ComEd needs to do a better job telling customers basic stuff, especially after a power failure, and she is setting up technology tools to help tackle the challenges.
Her influence has spurred the utility to adopt social-media tools, including texting, Twitter and Facebook, to get customers the answers they want in near-real-time.
“We live in a world of customization, and the energy (industry) is moving that way, too,” said Pramaggiore.
She concedes that no utility “has the secret sauce” in figuring out how best to engage customers.
“Our customers get frustrated. They would have been much more forgiving (during lengthy outages a year ago) if we had been able to give them information about their situation,” Pramaggiore said in an interview with the Sun-Times. “They want to know, ‘what caused the outage?’ ‘when will my power be back?’ ‘where are your crews?’ and ‘when are your crews coming?’”
The issue is particularly critical because ComEd customers expect immediate access and answers, even as the utility struggled to deal with the largest storms in its history in 2011 that plunged 2.8 million people into the dark, the utility reported. A July 11, 2011, storm that hit 900,000 customers was the single biggest in more than a decade, the utility said.
Katie Tweed, a senior writer at Greentech Media, Inc., a news and research firm that covers clean technologies, said ComEd ranks “very much in line with other utilities” in creating dialog with customers online.
Tweed cited Reliant Energy, a Houston-based utility now part of NRG Energy, for creating among the most progressive social media platforms. Reliant lets customers opt in to receive an alert when their bill reaches a certain amount and a “Cash Back Nights and Weekends” plan that offers discounted rates, for example.
“Most people don’t love their electric utility,” Tweed said. “As utilities look at a changing landscape, they have to look at their ratepayers as customers.”
Pramaggiore was a key advocate for the controversial electric-grid-update law that took effect when the Illinois Legislature on Oct. 26 overrode Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto of the legislation. Critics say the law guarantees ComEd and Ameren utilities yearly rate-hike increases for each of the next 10 years, while the utilities argue they must upgrade their electric grids to handle today’s demands and promised to set up “smart” electric substations, reduce outage frequency, hire construction workers and increase spending with minority- and women-owned businesses during the project.
Pramaggiore’s efforts to create a digital, smart and interactive power grid dovetail with her interest in using social media and innovative technology to interact with customers.
“There are aspects of our business where a hierarchical structure is essential,” she said. “But we also want to create a spirit of innovation where we bring new ideas to the table.”
She is influenced by books such as Richard Florida’s “Rise of the Creative Class” and Thomas Friedman’s “That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back.”
She is fascinated by their core themes: How does one manage through times of great change, especially the disruption of one’s own industry?
“You have to be willing to fail,” she said, noting that the key to success is a company’s culture.
Pramaggiore cites Florida’s book in expounding her belief that anyone can be creative, and successful companies attract as many creative people as they can.
One of ComEd’s first efforts is a $22 million fund for which energy-technology startup companies apply, and providing a “test bed” where those startups can try out their technologies on the energy grid.
Pramaggiore’s belief in involving customers will mean getting out from behind her desk to talk with people at community meetings in which ComEd will explain the “smart” meters it intends to roll out. The meters will let customers control their energy use by tracking it themselves and tweaking the times they turn on the air conditioner or wash dishes in the dishwasher.
But customers already can use social media and smart technology to make their voices heard.
ComEd’s latest initiatives include the ability for customers to text outages, report problems via a mobile app and choose a variety of ways to view an outage map online.
Some examples of how customers use the tools:
* Text a power outage by texting OUT to 26633 (ComEd). The texting service has 78,614 subscribers, up 29 percent from June 29 to July 9.
* Subscribe to outage alerts by texting ADD OUTAGE to 26633. This service requires the customer submit either his ComEd account number, Social Security number or phone number on the ComEd account. More details are at ComEd.com/Text
* Download ComEd’s free mobile app for the iPhone and Android devices to report an outage, check outage status, pay a bill, view account history and summaries and link to ComEd’s social media sites via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. It’s on the website at ComEd.com/App. Android mobile app subscriber numbers have more than doubled since June 29, to 9,963 from 4,811, while iPhone app subscribers have doubled to 21,215 in the same period.
* View outages throughout the service area on an online map, zoom in on specific areas and see estimated restoration time and repair-crew status at ComEd.com/Map
* Get the latest information on storms at ComEd.com/Storm
* ComEd also lets customers see how their energy use stacks up against their family and friends, and then share the information on Facebook. That’s at ComEd.com/home-savings/Pages/social-energy-tool.aspx
* The utility offers energy-saving tips and information on appliance rebates under the “Home Savings” section of its website, ComEd.com