“The year 2020 was one of the best that Santee Cooper had in its ratio of write-offs to revenue. A lot of that is attributed to us being able to defer balances on PrePay.” – Stephanie Burgess, Senior Manager of Retail Services and Customer Experience, Santee Cooper
Santee Cooper, one of South Carolina’s largest utility providers, wanted to enhance its ability to meet customers’ growing expectations for digital payments in 2014 by updating its technological infrastructure. So the company implemented PayGo, a billing and payment solution designed for utility companies and built on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Using the patented PrePay payment process from AWS Select Technology Partner PayGo, Santee Cooper enables customers to pay remotely or at participating retailers and access near-real-time energy usage information. Customers can regulate their energy usage, save money on utilities, and select the best payment option for themselves.
Launching Flexible Payment for Customers with PayGo on AWS
Santee Cooper indirectly provides electricity for 2 million people across South Carolina and directly to 196,000. For years, its customers had one service option: apply for service, pay a deposit, and pay for the energy they consumed. However, in 2013, customers asked for a prepayment solution that would remove the need for a deposit. “We wanted to expand our payment methods to permit customers to pay according to their individual needs,” says Stephanie Burgess, senior manager of retail services and customer experience at Santee Cooper. A prepayment solution would also benefit its customers, including low-income households, whose average energy costs, as a percentage of household income, are twice that of the median household and three times that of higher-income households, according to a 2016 study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All.
The challenge was that Santee Cooper didn’t have the advanced metering infrastructure or the cellular or smart meters required for a prepayment solution. “Our meters had no remote capabilities,” says Burgess. “At that point, we didn’t have a mesh network or an automated way to read meters or disconnect customers.”
After researching cost-effective advanced metering infrastructure solutions, Santee Cooper turned to the PayGo PrePay solution. In 6 months, Santee Cooper set up a pilot PrePay program with 100 cellular meters that worked alongside the PayGo solution and launched the program in 2014. A few months later, it added another 500 cellular meters. As of June 2021, Santee Cooper has deployed 170,000 smart meters to homes and businesses as part of a mesh network, accounting for 87 percent of its customer base. By the end of 2021, all Santee Cooper’s residential meters will have a remote disconnect and will be PrePay eligible.
Offering a Scalable, Secure Solution on AWS
PayGo’s technology stack on AWS is split between two Availability Zones in the AWS US East Region for high availability. The applications, such as the billing engine and the notification engine, run on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), a web service that provides secure, resizable compute capacity in the cloud. Users can access the PrePay application using their smartphones or other internet-connected devices. PayGo uses Elastic Load Balancing, which automatically distributes incoming application traffic across multiple targets, such as Amazon EC2 instances, containers, internet protocol addresses, and virtual appliances.
Each Availability Zone where PayGo operates has Microsoft SQL Servers running on Amazon EC2, providing high availability and disaster recovery. The backup procedure cross-replicates the data to another region using Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), an object storage service that offers industry-leading scalability, data availability, security, and performance.
Helping Customers Cut Energy Use, Costs, and Debt
As of May 2021, 2.5 percent of Santee Cooper’s residential customers used the PrePay solution. PrePay customers don’t have to pay a deposit, and they can set up automatic or recurring payments. Customers have the option to pay what they want, when they want, and they can pay off an outstanding balance over time. Previously, 60–80 percent of customers using a payment arrangement on a traditional account would not fulfill the arrangement or would contact Santee Cooper’s call center to set up a new one. But as a result of Santee Cooper’s solution, only 10–20 percent of PrePay customers with debt require a modification or do not fully pay it off. And most customers who started using the PrePay solution have continued with it. “When customers have options, they tend to be more satisfied,” says Burgess.
Since 2014, when Santee Cooper first implemented its PrePay program, it has seen a significant shift in how customers pay for prepaid electricity. Previously, around 53 percent of all payments were made in person using cash and 47 percent with a credit card online or through Santee Cooper’s interactive voice response system. Now, however, only about 13 percent of payments are made in person using cash. Customers now favor digital payment methods—with 53 percent of accounts paid on a mobile device and the remaining 34 percent paid online, through the interactive voice response system, or using another third-party payment method. Offering customers more options has reduced the number of in-person payments, which helps keep overall utility rates low.
PrePay customers can also use PayGo’s barcode-based solution to pay their utilities at 60,000 US retail locations, including dollar stores, convenience stores, and drugstores. Payments register in real time, and the smart meter communicates with the solution in seconds. “Customers can walk into any of those stores and pay their utilities with cash,” says Jeff Weiser, CEO of PayGo. “This option is sustainable because it meets people where they engage and do commerce.”
Santee Cooper customers using the PayGo solution generally use less energy than other customers because they can monitor their energy usage in near real time. “Instead of getting a high bill at the end of the month, customers see daily how much electricity they’re using,” says Burgess. “It prompts them to conserve more, which has become a selling point for energy-conscious customers.” The solution also helps customers detect problems with their heating or air-conditioning systems in a few days compared to 30–45 days when they would get their next bill with typical service.
The PrePay solution also helps reduce risk for Santee Cooper. Traditional customers who abandon an account leave an average of $200 in debt, whereas the PrePay customers leave an average of $20. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Santee Cooper stopped disconnecting PrePay customer meters for 2 months, during which time most customers didn’t make payments. When the company again started to disconnect unpaid meters, most PrePay customers began to pay off those debts. “The year 2020 was one of the best that Santee Cooper had in its ratio of write-offs to revenue,” says Burgess. “A lot of that is attributed to us being able to defer balances on PrePay.”
Continuing Innovation Using AWS Partner PayGo’s Solution
Santee Cooper plans to operate solely using advanced metering infrastructure by the end of 2021. At that point, it plans to market its PrePay solution and increase the number of users. The company hopes to increase PrePay enrollment by eliminating the premium charge currently required.
By using PayGo’s PrePay solution, Santee Cooper offers customers flexible payment options and greater control of their energy usage, which enables them to pay debt with greater ease, lower their carbon footprint, and save money. “We’ll continue to promote PrePay and evolve it,” says Burgess. “Customers are looking for convenient ways to do business. Santee Cooper’s goal is to stay innovative and be able to meet their demands.”
PayGo® is an Atlanta-based software and payments company. Our platforms deliver flexible billing and payment solutions that enable America’s largest investor-owned and public power utilities to enable higher customer engagement and improve revenue assurance. Utility customers experience greater control in how they manage and pay for their energy and water spend, along with ways to reduce consumption. More information is available at www.paygoutilities.com.
About Santee Cooper
Santee Cooper is one of the largest utility providers in South Carolina, delivering electricity and water services. It indirectly provides electricity for two million people across the state and directly to 196,000 commercial and residential customers.