Benton County PUD is among a growing number of Northwest utilities offering prepay programs, allowing customers to trade big monthly bills for smaller, weekly payments. After a soft launch in September, Benton's Pay As You Go program already has nearly 100 customers signed up.

Meeting customers' needs and evolving expectations in the digital era is driving utilities to allow prepay, or pay-as-you-go, programs. For Benton PUD, it comes as one of the final pieces of its years-long customer engagement strategy.

"It is similar to a prepaid phone card or filling up your gas tank," Christie McAloon, Benton PUD's manager of customer services, told Clearing Up.

It gives customers flexibility to pay when they want and how much they want, so long as they keep a credit on their account, she said.

Residential customers with smart meters are eligible to sign up (Benton PUD upgraded to smart meters by Sensus between 2009 and 2012). Participating customers have to keep $25 in their account. The amount is based on the average weekly usage for Benton PUD's residential customers. If customers drop below $25, they receive daily emails telling them to put more money into their accounts.

If an account turns negative, the PUD sends a shutoff warning; and if the customer still doesn't settle up, the utility shuts off power using the meter's remote disconnect capability, McAloon said.

Once a customer pays, power can be restored remotely within minutes.

No deposit is required from customers who sign up for service using the prepay program. Because participants have to keep a positive balance, "there is no risk to the PUD," she said.

Customers also have myriad payment options—online, by app, in person or through payment kiosks that even take cash. "A lot of customers interested in this option pay with cash," McAloon said.

The PUD's enterprise software from National Information Solutions Cooperative supports prepay as an out-of-the-box function. Customers can access it and monitor their electric usage via the utility's web portal or a smartphone app. They cannot, however, link their account to a bank account for auto pay.

Benton PUD looked into the option after repeatedly hearing about prepay at trade shows, McAloon said. "The industry is really moving in this direction."

Clallam County PUD is heading that way, too. It is one of several other utilities in the Northwest offering similar prepay programs. Like Benton, Clallam PUD uses NISC software for its program, called SmartPay.

Customers can open an account with a minimum balance of $40, but no deposit is needed, Clallam PUD communications manager Nicole Clark told Clearing Up.

The utility just recently rolled out SmartPay. "We only have 17 accounts at this time," she said. "We have had a lot going on this past year, though, so I'm going to be looking for a new direction to promote this [program] in 2020."

Like Benton, the Clallam program relies on smart meters with remote connect/disconnect capability. That avoids "the need for truck rolls and after-hours service calls," she said.

In Oregon, Central Lincoln PUD has a prepay program with only a $5 minimum requirement from customers.