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IBM's Smarter Cities Team Makes Recommendations to Lower Utility Bills

When IBM's Smarter Cities consulting team came to Knoxville three weeks ago, they were asked to help design a plan to lower utility bills and help educate lower-income residents about how to weatherize their houses to achieve more affordable bills. The team made their recommendations this morning in a 30-minute presentation at the City-County Building.

Rudi Loepp, a public sector expert for IBM opened the presentation by pointing out the chosen cover photo of the sunsphere. He said they chose to feature the structure because "It represented a time in Knoxville's history that the city galvanized around something they wanted to get done."

He then addressed the need for some adjustments in how Knoxville is currently approaching how to lower utility bills. It won't take a redesign of the whole system, he said, but "unless we can start doing something different, we're not going to fix the problem." 

And to fix the problem, Knoxville must become a "really smart city [that] realizes it needs to go beyond its own boundaries...to bring the whole thing together into one large family."

Avalyn Pace, who's worked for IBM for 30 years and leads the company's energy and utilities team at IBM's Global Solutions Center, listed five recommendations for how Knoxville should go about lowering utility bills and educating residents. (She also thanked the city for WDVX's Blue Plate Special and Calhoun's ribs.)

The recommendations included developing one voice for a shared vision, harnessing the data available, educating the community, funding the program, and engaging landlords.

Pace addressed how to "develop one voice," which addressed coordination and collaboration among KUB, businesses, community nonprofits, churches, and residents. She proposed a council of stakeholders, which would include representatives from those groups, plus the city government and the chamber of commerce. Ideally, they would all work together to reach out to the community, set goals, and educate the public. 

"We want the whole city involved in this effort," Pace said, because "there can be resistance to change." Though she noted that the people she'd spoken to all seemed open to their ideas.

Dr. Anika Schumann, who's a researcher at IBM's Smarter Cities Technology Centre in Dublin, Ireland, addressed how to maximize the power of all the data sets available among the stakeholders. 

"You have so much in your heads," she said. But "all this information is distributed among all these different heads."

In order to synthesize the data, phone calls have to be made, people have to take time to train representatives in specific areas of data, and that makes it difficult to help people. 

Ideally, Schumann said, more data would be collected to fill in the holes to create a bigger database, where information based on someone's details could be called upon by one person without having to make phone calls to other agencies. 

"It [could] allow you, for example, to find out what neighborhood receives the most emergency [bill] funds," Schumann said. And that information, in turn, could be used to determine which neighborhoods to concentrate education and assistance efforts.

Jeni Vancura, IBM's Director of Human Resources (and who works with virtually every department at the company), addressed how to educate the community on weatherization techniques and the benefits of adopting energy efficient appliances and practices. 

"There are so many groups out there already doing education," she said. But "education is available on a reactive basis and it's not well-coordinated." 

Low-income customers most in need of lower utility bills are less likely to read their bills and probably respond best to interactive situations during which they can ask questions, Vancura said. "If they're not aware [of assistance], obviously they're not going to take advantage," she said.  

She suggested a program used in other cities in which young adults from communities most in need of assistance are trained to educate their neighbors about how to weatherize their houses, and what kind of bill assistance is available. 

Debbie Bonner Perkins, a Client Services leader in IBM's Global Technology Services division, spoke about how to fund any education programs the city decides to adopt. Everyone who had spoken before her had looked in her direction at some point, she said, and "I feel like I'm in the movie 'Jerry Maguire,' you know. 'Show me the money!'"

But then she addressed the need to appeal to organizations with money.

"We need to make a business case to do these [projects]," she said. She gave KCDC's energy efficience updates to many housing units as an example, saying they saved $1 million by updating housing. "[So] the business case is there," Perkins said.

To help out, Perkins suggested KUB partner with the TVA in some of its programs, such as the single-engagement program, which gives ongoing rebates when people take energy saving steps (up until they reach a certain "score"). Perkins also mentioned TVA's smart energy communities, which has millions of dollars KUB could tap. 

One of her last suggestions was for KUB to start a program where customers could elect to round their bills up to the nearest dollar, and donate the change (maybe about 50 cents per bill) to a fund for weatherization and education programs.

"I'm excited about this area for the community," she said. 

Loepp returned to speak about the need to engage landlords in incentive programs so that tenants don't get stuck with high utility bills and are unable to do much about it. 

"Without [landlords], you've got a four-legged stool with only three legs," Loepp said. 

Loepp recommended landlord education programs, and incentives for weatherization and energy efficience upgrades like grants or tax rebates. 

Loepp wrapped up the presentation by saying his team put together a plan for the city to follow that reaches out for nine to 12 months. The city is responsible for carrying it forward after that. 

Mayor Madeline Rogero spoke last and reiterated how grateful she was for the team's service.  The next steps for the city, she said, are to take a look at the forthcoming report from the team (expected in about 30 days). It'll be posted on the city's website.

"Then I ask you to take a look at it, and then we'll all come back toegether and talk about it," Rogero said. "We still have to make it our own."

Rogero also said she plans to meet with representatives from both KUB and TVA.

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