Consumers have a choice when it comes to buying energy. Support a small local company that understands the unique needs of Alberta, or deal with an offshore company that is disconnected from the community. For residents in Fort McMurray, the choice is becoming clear, and they are quickly realizing what an impact shipping local jobs offshore can have.
Many residents in Fort McMurray - finally starting to get their lives on track after the big fire – were hit with outstanding balances owing on their utility invoices, showing charges of $500, $750 to $1,000 and higher in September.
Not so hard to understand: Direct Energy and ATCO are simply catching up for previous unbilled periods. But with big utility companies such as these outsourcing their administrative jobs out of the province to IT giants for offshore services, Fort McMurray residents were left feeling disappointed with their energy retailer when overseas customer support representatives weren’t sympathetic to the situation. How can you expect a call-centre employee in Guatemala to truly understand or have empathy for the needs of a customer in Fort McMurray? Does a software engineer in India truly comprehend the unique billing needs of the Alberta market?
Is the local manager of DIRECT sensitive to the needs of the 25,000 customers in Fort McMurray that faced increased utility invoices? Of course, they are. They hosted a mea culpa session at a local hotel to try to explain the reasoning behind the high bills but, unfortunately, this level of sensitivity cannot be easily communicated to the many representatives overseas.
Direct Energy outsourced to HCL in India. ATCO followed a similar path, signing a 10- year $1.2 Billion outsourcing deal with Wipro for their iTek division. This money is being shipped out of the province. Money that would have been better spent in our own province, especially at a time when Alberta’s unemployment rate is the highest it has been in 20 years.
Why were jobs shipped offshore? Partly based on the delivery of cost-effective services, said Brian Bale, ATCO’s senior vice-president and CFO. Why did DIRECT ship jobs offshore? Again, not hard to understand, it is a division of an international energy company, part of the Centrica Group out of the UK. Understandably, Alberta is a very small part of their global business. The concept of consolidation and centralizing is designed to push costs down. Simply put, it is good for the bottom line of ATCO and DIRECT. But, have consumers seen their costs go down?
Residents have taken to social media sites to express their discontent with the situation. Facebook groups such as Fort McMurray Everything Goes and Fort McMurray Mommy Network, with a combined membership of over 50,000, saw a significant stream of posts and comments related to their dissatisfaction with international energy conglomerates like Direct Energy. The good news is, under deregulation consumers have a choice.
“Customers with DIRECT were pretty vocal,” said Get Energy’s Malcolm Setter. He and wife, Jenelle, own the local energy company that retails utilities such as electricity, natural gas, and green energy.
According to Malcolm, their loyal customers on Facebook have suggested that residents who feel disenchanted by the recent events should consider moving over to their local energy provider, Get Energy.
“Our phones rang off the hook,” said Malcolm.
Get Energy teamed up with the Alberta-based UTILITYnet, a utility clearinghouse – also founders of Green Alberta Energy – over two years ago. This partnership meant the smaller company joined a larger organization that could also secure renewable energy credits at a substantially lower cost. The co-op approach gave Get Energy the ability to compete on a bigger stage, with the largest players in the retailing of electricity and natural gas. More importantly, they were able to help consumers green their energy at an affordable price.
“Without competition, consumers have limited choices and existing retail prices remain unchallenged,” said Malcolm. “Clearly, there is room for more competition, with consumers being the ultimate winners. Just compare our prices and you can see that our customers are saving money.”
Buying local and saving money are two good reasons to switch over to Get Energy, and when it comes to switching retailers, the process is simple says Malcolm. “It takes us five minutes to process a customer application before UTILITYnet engages their seamless backend.” This administrative technology and the local customer support staff located in Calgary provides a streamlined process that is UTILITYnet’s secret sauce.
UTILITYnet has offered a new approach to the old utility mindset in the province for over four decades. The company was started in 1979 by Madeline Low to provide energy management services to oil and gas companies and has grown and evolved to include Managing Partner Nick Clark. When electricity was deregulated in 2000, they crafted a “Self-Retail” solution for large industrial clients which helped companies lower their energy costs by buying directly off the grid and moving away from the traditional utility providers. In 2009 they re-engineered the IT systems and services originally built for their oil and gas industrial customers and created a new business model focused on meeting the needs of residential and small business customers. The objective was laser focused; family and friends were offered the opportunity to lower their monthly utility bills. UTILITYnet branched out with 24 Energy Marketers, such as Get Energy, to provide competitive energy rates across Alberta.
Here’s a brush-up. Electricity has four main components:
Electricity generation plants in Alberta create power using coal, natural gas, water, wind, biomass and other means (mostly natural gas and coal by a wide margin). All energy in the province is pooled and dispatched by AESO. After the transformers have reduced the high-voltage electricity to low-voltage electricity, it then travels to consumers over low-voltage distribution wires that are owned by distribution wire owners. The distribution wires may be owned by municipalities, farming co-ops or investor-owned companies (in Fort McMurray, the wires operator is ATCO). Regardless of from whom the customer buys energy, everything behind the scene operates seamlessly. All the consumer is worried about is ‘flip the switch’ and the lights come on. This process, on behalf of Get Energy, is managed by UTILITYnet.
Next, the electricity is sold to customers through an Energy Marketer, like Get Energy.
Get Energy – Simple, Local, Competitive
Malcolm and Jenelle celebrate their two-year anniversary with Get Energy on December 1. The two met in high school in Calgary before their life’s journey in 2005 took them to Fort McMurray. Malcolm was an electrician in the mining industry and Jenelle worked her way up through Suncor to become team lead in human resources. Along the way, they bought and managed 21 properties, started up an insurance company, and soon determined the need to save energy for their real-estate holdings.
“Why don’t you start your own energy company?” asked a friend of Malcolm who began his research online. That’s where he came across UTILITYnet.
“What appealed to me was the company does not require contracts and there are no exit fees,” said Malcolm. “My customers like that a lot.”
There were several more bonus features of working with UTILITYnet; the benefit of the spot market; guaranteed stable prices; the Light Up Alberta program which supports micro generators of solar energy; and special rates for seniors. These initiatives and others helped set Get Energy apart from the big utility providers. Additionally, on the eve of the Alberta Government unveiling its Climate Change Strategy and the global conference in Paris, UTILITYnet launched Green Alberta Energy to provide renewable resources as an affordable option.
Malcolm is serious about growing the company. How serious? “We’d like to scale to 20 or 30,000 homes and businesses in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.” One gets the impression this will happen for the smart, ambitious couple.
Get Energy believes in supporting the community in which they live and work. The energy retailer offers “At Cost Energy” for registered charities, meaning if a charity is responsible for their electricity and natural gas services, Get Energy donates 100% of the energy profits from the account back to the charity at the end of the year. Additionally, 10% of Get Energy’s annual profits are donated to local charities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
In 2016, Get Energy joined a number of Energy Marketers of UTILITYnet in a fundraising program for the Red Cross and the Food Bank in Fort McMurray. From the date of the fire, these Energy Marketers are donating 10% of their total income each month during the balance of 2016 on sales to customers spread across 300 communities all over Alberta. They're serious about their pledge: “We’ve got your back”, and were serious about doing what they could do to help out.
“Give us a call,” said Malcolm. “We will show you have to save some money on your electricity bill. In fact, we might be able to save you enough to offset the Carbon Levy to hit your bills in 2017, or green 10 to 15% of your energy and still have a little left over for a cup of coffee down at Tim’s.”
I wonder if the customer care person over in Guatemala knows who Tim is?