An incorrect utility bill is always frustrating, but for the City of Lakewood the stakes are just a bit higher than the average residential account. Following an intense amount of double-checking and a lot of number crunching, the City recently received a $138,000 credit from Xcel Energy on Lakewood’s electricity bill for traffic signals and streetlights.
Mike Whiteaker, the City’s traffic engineering manager, points out that the electricity bill for these lights looks just like what people are used to, albeit with some larger figures. “Last month we paid Xcel for 7,708 streetlights,” amounting to $225,000, he says.
Big bills like that come with big headaches because the City isn’t billed the same way that, say, a homeowner is. For most of the traffic signals and streetlights, there are no meters attached to them that measure the actual electricity used. Xcel’s bill also isn’t logically itemized. Instead, Xcel bills Lakewood based mostly on a summary number of bulbs or wattages. Lakewood staff members then have to download three billing spreadsheets and match locations with the summarized billing totals. Staff tracks the change in totals and locations, including looking for bulbs or wattages that turn out to be outside the city and other billing issues.
“With traffic signals in particular, we have to count the number of lights. We have to tell Xcel every time we change the type of bulb to get the billed rate changed. We have to keep track, and they have to process the changes,” Whiteaker says. With thousands of lights constantly in use, it quickly becomes a “very hard system to keep track of.”
Given Xcel’s systems, the City tracks when it upgrades bulbs from incandescent to LED lighting to let Xcel know. The City has changed to light-emitting diode bulbs in numerous traffic signals because the LED lights use a lot less electricity – easily exceeding 85 percent less in electricity in many instances. But without meters on most signals and streetlights, Lakewood only gets credit for the lower electricity use by telling Xcel to count each one of those LED bulbs in the total bulb list for the monthly bill.
Added into that is all the “other things going on,” Whiteaker says, and the bill becomes even more complicated. “We keep adding more and more technology” like cameras and remote sensors that also are billed for electricity, he notes. Still, traffic-related energy costs for the City have decreased overall largely because of the conversion to LED bulbs, he says.
Xcel uses multiple software systems that Whiteaker says is the main underlying issue that caused the City to be overbilled. Xcel’s different systems had different sets of data showing a different number of bulbs or improperly addressed locations, prompting Lakewood to be charged incorrectly for lights as far back as 2008.
Lakewood also pays for electricity “for a light whether it’s working or not,” Whiteaker adds, so all streetlights on major roads are periodically checked for outages. Whiteaker highly encourages residents to report streetlight outages or related issues directly to Xcel, which is required to replace the burned out bulbs.
The effort to unravel the billing as far back as 2008 required the whole Traffic Engineering Division. Technician Keith Goates, who recently retired, undertook the bulk of the initial work, and now his successor Connor McAlinden goes through the bills for about two days each month, comparing databases with Xcel. Whiteaker is pleased that the division has been able to shift to “actively tracking” the billing now rather than retroactively getting items corrected.
The Public Works Department also has adopted a more formal energy audit every two years. Whiteaker says Xcel has added a policy requiring cities “to add a meter for any new or rebuilt intersection,” which then bills the City only for actual electricity usage. This is already making a difference, he says, as the City “currently has 49 metered services out of 202 intersections.”
Since the City also has been using a geographic information software system internally to create a database of the locations for each traffic signal and streetlight, it has “made our ability to report a light out so much easier,” Whiteaker says. Using the GIS software has also prompted the City to work with Xcel “to get GIS coordinates for these lights” from the company’s GIS system and make sure both systems agree.
In the end, the double-checking, auditing and number crunching demonstrates the division’s commitment to ensuring that Lakewood – and its taxpayers – aren’t being overbilled on what is already a sizable electricity bill.