After 20 years on a mainframe, Avista Utilities is launching new computer systems this year for handling customer service calls, managing work orders and tracking equipment in its three-state service territory.
The $80 million project is a massive undertaking. For the past two years, 120 Avista employees, consultants and contractors have been working on the rollout in rented quarters in a Spokane Valley office park. The testing of the new systems is underway, with the switch-over expected in mid- to late summer.
“We’re one of the few utilities left on the West Coast with our original system,” said Vicki Weber, Avista’s director of customer strategic projects. “It’s run very well for us, but it’s tired.”
Avista’s mainframe system was custom built by Hewlett-Packard in 1994. That’s the route utilities were taking at that time to get the functions they needed.
Now, however, “the languages the mainframe was written in are obsolete, and the people who have the skill sets to write in those languages are few and far between,” said Pat Dever, Avista’s director of applications and systems programming.
Off-the-shelf products designed especially for utilities have become available. Avista picked an Oracle customer service and billing system that’s used by more than 600 other utilities, and an IBM work and asset management system. Dever said the ability to get regular system upgrades is one of the advantages of an off-the-shelf product.
People who call Avista’s customer service center to report power outages or with billing questions won’t notice any difference when the new system is in place, Weber said. But company officials expect to see efficiencies in a number of areas, including better tracking of repairs and maintenance on its vast network of power generation and distribution equipment.
The $80 million project cost includes integrating Oracle’s and IBM’s systems, labor costs for Avista employees and contractors setting up the new systems, and the training programs for about 800 company employees who will use the systems.
Avista’s 650,000 electric and natural gas customers will pay off the cost of the new systems over 15 years, said Debbie Simock, a company spokeswoman. A typical residential customer with electric and natural gas service will pay an additional $1.10 per month on their bills.
The amortized cost is already built into scheduled rate increases for Idaho and Oregon customers, Simock said. It will be part of an upcoming Washington rate case.