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K-12 School Spotlight: Portland Public Schools, Oregon

Leveraging a Third-Party Service Provider to Streamline Utility Data Entry and Processing

Portland Public Schools (PPS) eliminated manual data entry of utility bills by contracting with a third-party energy and utility management company that saved the school district 46 hours a month of internal personnel time, approximately $3,000 per year, and gave the school's energy specialist more time to address usage anomalies and improve the energy performance of school facilities.


Goal: Achieve a 20% reduction in energy intensity by 2022 from a 2009 baseline across school facilities and comply with a statewide mandate to report annual energy consumption.

Barrier: Difficulty managing large number of utility accounts and assets.

Solution: Contracted with a third-party energy and utility management company to develop a comprehensive solution for its utility data access, tracking, and processing needs.

Outcomes: Eliminated manual data entry of utility bills that saved 46 hours a month of internal personnel time, saved the school district approximately $3,000 per year, and gave the school's energy specialist more time to address usage anomalies and improve the energy performance of school facilities.


PPS is the largest school district in the Pacific Northwest and was manually collecting, tracking, and paying utility bills for 1,100 electric, natural gas, and water meters across its 100 school facilities and 9 million square foot portfolio. Manual entry of consumption data required up to 20-25 hours per month of the energy specialist's time that significantly limited his time to manage and improve the performance of those facilities. It also left PPS with records of consumption data that were 3 months behind the current billing period. With many sites utilizing multiple fuel types, gaps in data prevented the energy specialist from visualizing the full energy profile of facilities under his purview. In addition, manual entry created data inaccuracies.

Implementation Strategy

Third-Party Service Provider Value Proposition and Selection

The energy specialist projected that using a third-party vendor to assist PPS in its energy data collection and tracking efforts would significantly reduce staff time spent on energy data collection and utility bill processing, eliminate the backlog of energy data, increase the completeness of energy data for a "full energy profile" of each facility, and reduce the time lag between the period of energy consumption and the time energy data are available for review.

To make the business case for entering into a long-term contract with a third-party vendor, the energy specialist worked with the accounts payable department to determine the amount of staff time PPS was spending on data collection, tracking, and bill payment every month. This analysis found that approximately 46 hours a month of internal personnel time could be saved through the utilization of a third-party contract that included comprehensive utility bill data entry, a tracking tool, and invoice analysis and processing services. The new contract with the third-party vendor would also eliminate a utility database fee PPS was paying.

The analysis estimated that the savings in personnel time plus the savings from eliminating the utility database fee would be approximately equal to the cost of the third-party service; however, once implemented, the third-party service contract proved to be cheaper than expected, saving the school district more than $3,000 per year (see Table 1 below).

Table 1: PPS Cost-Benefit Analysis for Implementing a Third-Party Utility Data Management Solution
PPS School District Line Items Average Monthly Hours Saved Equivalent Internal Annual Costs and Savings
School District Personnel Savings 46 hrs. $21,222
Energy Specialist 20 hrs. $10,468
Resource Conservation Manager 8 hrs. $4,395
Finance Clerk I 18 hrs. $6,359
Service Fee for Utility Database Savings - $1,975
Total Gross Savings 46 hrs. $23,197
Cost of Utility Data Management Service - ($20,000)
Total Net Savings 46 hrs. $3,197

Presenting this analysis to PPS's leadership helped generate support for the solution. Not only was this a cost-saving proposition, but the additional energy management services provided by the third-party service providers tipped the scales in favor of pursuing the third-party approach. After receiving buy-in from leadership, PPS issued a request for information for comprehensive utility-billing services, including utility-bill aggregation and a data-tracking tool.

Ultimately, PPS selected ENGIE Impact (formerly Ecova) because it could easily integrate its comprehensive utility billing services, including utility bill aggregation and data entry, a data-tracking tool, and invoice analysis and processing services, with PPS's existing data software platform. ENGIE Impact's platform also provided a number of functionalities that would improve PPS's ability to manage and analyze utility-bill invoices.

ENGIE Impact provided the following services to PPS:

Utility Bill Management Energy Data Management Tool
  • Continuous utility-bill data entry
  • Invoice processing and auditing
  • Late fee avoidance
  • Missing invoice/late arriving notification
  • Correspondence and bill insert
  • Invoice archiving
  • Improved reporting capabilities including custom reports (e.g., avoided costs)
  • Budget tracking, analysis and modeling
  • Annual review of utility rate schedules
  • Security/access control
  • Automatic Energy Star upload
  • Web-based platform, enabling access to data to a greater number of staff
  • Training and technical assistance

Streamlining Data Access

ENGIE Impact entered data manually for PPS, so the energy specialist researched the availability of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI)—an electronic communication method that provides standards for exchanging data electronically—to streamline the transfer of utility data from its electric utilities. He discovered that both electric utilities servicing PPS, Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, offered EDI capabilities.

ENGIE Impact facilitated the EDI data transfer from Portland General Electric by setting up the back-end translation software and working directly with the utility to maintain the data transfer protocol. ENGIE Impact also delivered a replicated utility bill that satisfied accounts payable protocols requiring the receipt and storage of pro-forma invoices.

ENGIE Impact supported PPS in data collection for the remaining gas, electric, water, fuel-oil, diesel, sewage, and solid-waste accounts that were not transferable via EDI. ENGIE Impact also worked with PPS to use a monthly electronic-bill format produced by Waste Management and import that data into PPS's database.

In this way, ENGIE Impact served as the main provider of data entry services to PPS. It received copies of PPS's invoices directly from the utilities, entered the data into a single file, and sent the file twice a week to PPS. PPS then uploaded the files directly into their accounts payable systems to process payment.

With two of PPS's vendors, bill payment was processed independently from ENGIE Impact's data entry step. One reason for this was late fees brought about by a delay in bill payments to a natural gas vendor requiring a short invoice payment window. To correct this issue, accounts payable staff started processing these bills in-house and ENGIE Impact uploaded the gas data for energy tracking purposes. Accounts payable staff were also responsible for handling Waste Management bills separately.

Transition to Service Provider

The transition from internal utility bill processing to the third-party service was not immediate and without setbacks. The energy specialist invested time to evaluate several proposed options that would most adequately fit PPS's needs. Switching from the old process to the new process required PPS to clean its list of accounts and remove old accounts.

The energy specialist worked closely with ENGIE Impact staff and participating utilities during the implementation phase and to resolve initial processing mistakes. While efficiencies were gained by reducing the number of accounts needing manual data entry, the inadvertent delay in payment of gas bills required the accounts payable department to investigate the resultant late fees and develop an alternative process to prevent late payments. The energy specialist estimated that the transition to the new process took about 1 year to complete, and internal time savings began to accumulate in the second year.


Energy and Cost Savings

With the previous data collection process, records of consumption data were 3 months behind the actual billing period. Now tracking is at most 6 weeks behind, reducing the delay by half and improving the response time to identify billing errors and usage anomalies. See Figure 1 below.

Bar chart showing maximum delay in availability of energy data.

Figure 1. Maximum delay in availability of energy data for review

Faster access to usage trend data translated into real avoided costs for PPS, resulting from an improved ability to prioritize maintenance calls and repairs. PPS used a combination of indicators to determine the urgency and priority level of service calls pertaining to water use. Using a combination of bill data and service reports, the energy specialist escalated service calls to a high-priority level when the latest consumption data demonstrated that usage increased significantly relative to historical use. With this new tracking approach, the energy specialist identified water leaks up to 2 months faster than before. This helps avoid ongoing charges, which in some cases were as large as $10,000 per month at $12.13/ centum cubic feet (ccf).

In one instance, water usage at a school increased from 125 ccf in April 2013 to 682 ccf in May of the same year. PPS discovered the increase 2 weeks after the bill period ended, and the site was escalated to high priority. PPS found a leak and traced it to a large irrigation water line break. Correcting the leak avoided about $7,000 per month in ongoing charges.

PPS identified a similar problem at another school when water consumption increased from a monthly average of 200 ccf to 1101 ccf for the month of October. PPS traced the anomaly to two large water leaks in a bathroom and a domestic water pipe. PPS issued emergency status on the problem, leading to an avoidance of about $10,000 per month in consumption charges once the leaks were repaired.

Because PPS reviewed consumption data within 2–4 weeks after each billing period, maintenance staff were able to identify the problem and address it promptly, reducing that month's waste and bringing consumption back to normal levels by the following month.

Consistent and comprehensive monthly data provided by ENGIE Impact also enabled PPS to benchmark and track annual energy consumption patterns. PPS conducted an analysis of high schools that revealed a general downward trend in energy use intensity from Fiscal Year 2010 to 2013; however, the analysis identified two sites experiencing an overall increase in energy consumption over the same time period that could not be attributed to weather or other known factors. See Figure 2 below.

A subsequent investigation into these two schools identified poorly functioning building controls, resulting in inappropriate stop and start times for the building equipment, including a boiler that was set to run continuously on Saturday mornings.

Line chat showing several high school data benchmarking over three fiscal years.

Figure 2: Benchmarking of high school EUI

Increased Operational Efficiency

Overall, the new process significantly reduced the amount of time devoted to data processing by the energy specialist, resource conservation manager, and finance clerk. With ENGIE Impact's services, staff spend 46 fewer hours per month on average processing and tracking bills. Prior to the contract with ENGIE Impact, the energy specialist spent approximately 24 hours a month keeping the energy usage database up to date. After implementing the streamline solution, he spent 4 hours a month on the same task. After establishing protocols for monitoring and recording credits and rebills and modifying the system for making natural gas payments, the finance clerk realized 18 hours a month in time savings.

Ability to Focus on Energy Upgrade Projects

With the realized time savings, the energy specialist devoted more resources to identifying and designing specific, energy-focused, capital-needs projects that are managed and contracted internally, thereby saving PPS additional project costs. Check out PPS's Marysville Elementary School Showcase Project that is expected to reduce energy use by 48% compared to its baseline energy use in 2016, resulting in annual cost savings of $22,000 for the school district. PPS also developed measurement and verification tools that will help present the ongoing energy savings and avoided cost attributed to its future projects.

Note: The information in this case study is based on primary research conducted in 2013-2014. Learn more about the guide's research and development.

To learn more about streamlining access to utility data, see Step 4.