For the last eight years of my 27-year career in the military, I was responsible for merging the Air Force's computer business with its communications business. This undertaking was similar in at least one significant way to current efforts to expand the role of computers in the regulated utility environment (em education is paramount.
Utilities typically employ computer technology either by creating internal information management divisions/subsidiaries or by outsourcing the work to a company that specializes in computer information technology. The primary impact of computer information systems is their cost: money spent for equipment, facilities, personnel, overhead, and operation and maintenance. These systems are expected to exert a positive impact on operating costs and shareholder earnings. Public utility regulators see a parallel impact on rate bases, incentive regulation initiatives, and competition. I would assign a $50-billion price tag to these combined impacts, and I think I am not far from the mark.
The magnitude of this $50-billion impact poses a dilemma of sorts for regulators. On the one hand, many want utilities to deploy computer information systems because they produce greater efficiencies and cost reductions. At the same time, however, the large expense may require that they decide what is an appropriate and prudent course of action for their jurisdictional utilities; buy, lease, or outsource? Commission staff also must fully understand the overall benefits of computer information systems and not consider bottom-line dollar value alone.
Information energy services like GIS can be used to modernize our infrastructure for power cables, gas pipelines, cable TV and telephone, coaxial, wire, or fiber-optic distribution systems. Software application programs can be developed to automate paper blueprint documents, reducing paper files and labor-intensive updating requirements. They can also be used to plan improvements to the utility infrastructure as well as for troubleshooting outages and modeling "what if" scenarios. Computer software can be applied to automate highway traffic signaling and permitting systems for the transportation industry. They can be used to track utility costs and prices, and monitor quality of service, safety methods, and compliance with state and federal regulations more efficiently.
The computer has become the investment of choice among utilities. Key issues for regulators include how to handle this investment in rate base, how to maintain customer privacy, and how to leverage information technologies so that we and our staffs can do our jobs faster, better, and more effectively. The capabilities that computer information systems offer are virtually unlimited, but regulators need a better understanding of the technology to ensure that it benefits ratepayers and shareholders alike.
To that end, NARUC will host a national symposium on computer information systems on October 1-3 in Colorado Springs, CO. The symposium will focus on the impact of computer information systems on regulated utilities, the similarities exist that cross all functional industries, and the regulatory issues specific to each of the regulated industries. t
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