The United Illuminating (UI) Company has a long and storied history as a regional electric transmission and distribution organization. It is one of the operating companies of the UIL Holdings Corporation along with The Southern Connecticut Gas Company, Connecticut Natural Gas Corporation and The Berkshire Gas Company.
Established in 1899 as a result of the merger of the New Haven Electric Company and the Bridgeport Electric Light Company, UI has approximately 317,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers. UI is focused on transmission and distribution assets. There are approximately 800 employees at UI with around 1,850 employees as part of the UIL Holdings family.
“We service New Haven and Fairfield counties and their 17 towns,” Vice President Joe Thomas says. “The population is fairly transient with a high churn rate, as a lot of area universities have people regularly moving in and out of the region.”
UI’s investment focus is on aging infrastructure, ensuring reliability, improving customer service and deployment of technology. One of its challenges includes rising energy and delivery costs for customers.
The organization is emphasizing initiatives aimed at cost management and conservation load management and investing in technology. This works to help customers better understand their bill and offering them online tools to create their own energy savings plans. Another challenge is related to coastal storms such as Irene and Sandy. Those storms shed a harsh light on issues with coastal substations and the ability to withstand strong storms and flooding. “Our reliability is very good, and we strive to at least maintain our reliability levels but always find ways to improve,” Thomas says.
In many ways, UI has always sought to be ahead of the curve. The organization has utilized mobile technology on the customer side since 1996 and it has had fixed metering since the late 1990s. It has been upgrading those systems to current technology and it is looking for more integration opportunities that will benefit customers.
Recent initiatives include advanced metering, a two-way mesh communications network, new customer information systems and using SAP tools. UI is also investing in a new Outage Management System (OMS) and Graphical Information System (GIS). “We have a solid foundational technology and are now looking improve integration between systems for better efficiencies for us and the customer,” Thomas says.
One of the trends that UI is focused on is the increase of distributed energy resources (DERs) like fuel cells, solar farms, rooftop residential solar systems and municipal micro grids. These two-way power flow systems are still relatively new to the industry. Most utility distribution systems are one way and don’t easily accept renewables. “Our focus is on technology solutions that will enable DERs so customers can easily connect while the system can still be safe and reliable,” Thomas says.
UI works with state and utility stakeholders as part of an ongoing effort to streamline interconnection standards that benefit all parties. That is a major factor in getting DERs into the system. An increase in volume can strain resources, so technology investments will help with enrollment and interconnection efficiency.
Part of that process involves new thinking. Traditional investments from utilities to resolve reliability and capacity issues have always been with wires, base generation and substations.
UI sees opportunities to work with other providers and to offer other solutions to find ways that DERs can help solve capacity and reliability issues.
“This is another tool to help solve capacity issues and renewable energy goals,” Thomas says. “We are supporting partnership creation while getting customers and suppliers to work together to meet energy goals and objectives. That is a big shift, so we are evaluating the use of energy storage. Renewables have to be available to meet capacity needs during both peak and off peak periods while leverage energy storage to effectively meet customer and system operational requirements. The best way to do that is for utilities to work with public utility commissions, legislators, customers and suppliers to determine challenges while finding solutions and getting them deployed. We must always be mindful of safety, reliability and the prudence of all investments.”
Vendors play a critical role in UI’s operations. In evaluating potential partners, the company looks for high quality of products and services as well as a record of accomplishment in the areas of safety and innovation.
“We have aligned ourselves with vendors that have helped us be successful. Such as WESCO for distribution equipment, SAP and others,” Thomas says. “Our core vendors have worked closely with us to be sure we are getting the best solution and value for our customers. We do our due diligence to be sure everything is in the best interest for all stakeholders.”
Looking to the future, UI will focus on maintaining and improving infrastructure. As part of the state’s comprehensive energy strategy, UIL’s natural gas utilities continue to invest in and expand our gas distribution system. This is important to ensure that our region has energy options that support both economic development and consumer demands. Technology will be critical for all UIL operating companies so they can integrate, streamline operations and reduce cost. Technology will also offer customers better information about their energy use.
“What makes UI successful is our employees,” Thomas says. “We invest in employees to make sure they learn new skills, and access to the latest technologies. Most of our employees work and live in the area we serve. UIL employees express their commitment to the community through volunteer efforts as well as an annual employee giving campaign. This contributes to our success.”.