Monday, July 16, 2018

Are the Benefits of DERs Reaching Low-Income Communities?

The electric utility has been evolving in recent years to be more customer focused. Smart meters, mobile apps, distributed energy resources (DERs) and smart home technology – to name just a few – are giving consumers unprecedented control of their home energy usage.

However, these programs and services of the “utility of the future” may not be reaching all customers. Low-income consumers, who are perhaps best suited to benefit from energy-saving programs and tech since they spend a larger percentage of their income on electricity, often report feeling distanced from their utility’s efforts.

As we found in our “Spotlight on Low-Income Consumers: Revisiting Their Needs and Wants” report, low-income consumers, by and large, don’t see their utility as a trusted partner to help solve their problems and often perceive a number of hurdles to engaging in energy-saving programs, including the upfront costs associated with some technologies and the lack of agency to make changes as renters.

Yet, despite this disconnect, there are some efforts underway to include low-income consumers in the new energy programs and technologies, particularly renewable energy programs, which have a unique value proposition for this subset of customers.

Let’s take a look at two examples where renewable energy programs are being designed specifically for low-income consumers, one from a nonprofit institute in California and the other from an investor-owned utility in New York.

Working toward energy equity for all Californians

Based in Oakland, California, The Greenlining Institute is working to ensure that the benefits of DERs reach low-income communities and communities of color. According to Greenlining’s Energy Equity Director Stephanie Chen, low-income communities are disproportionately affected by fossil fuel generation and stand to benefit greatly from a transition to clean energy sources.

These benefits include not just lower monthly electric bills, but also better air quality, an influx of local jobs, more resilient homes and communities, and a sense of community pride that comes from producing clean, renewable energy directly in the community.

Greenlining is currently working on two projects in California that will deliver tangible benefits to low-income communities. The first is the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program, which will roll out later this year and provide up to $100 million annually over 10 years to install solar on rooftops and parking lots at affordable housing properties.

The bill that created this program also included provisions to promote local job growth and to ensure that renters – not just property owners – will realize benefits via savings on their monthly bills. In addition, the program provides renters with energy-efficiency retrofits, which can provide additional health and comfort benefits to the tenants. Some buildings will also have battery storage installed, which improves resilience.

The second major initiative for Greenlining is transportation electrification (TE), with an emphasis on ensuring that TE benefits the communities that need it most. According to Chen, about 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions are due to its transportation sector, and these pollutants disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color, since these communities are more likely located near to major highways, ports and airports. For these communities, there are clear environmental and public health benefits from widespread TE. In addition, EV charging during the day can help tame the duck curve, ensuring that Californians get the most benefits from their investments in solar generation.

Greenlining’s TE strategy for California includes additional financial incentives for purchasing electric vehicles (EVs) for low- and moderate-income families, affordable financing provisions for these consumers, accessible EV charging for low-income communities and expanded car-sharing programs.

One of the most exciting initiatives, according to Chen, is electrified public transit. The batteries from large buses can be scheduled to power the grid when not in use, which can bring in additional revenue for the transit agencies. This, in turn, can allow these agencies to purchase more buses and improve services for the community.

Con Edison testing solar for historically underserved markets

In New York, the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative has been driving Con Edison to expand the use of DERs throughout New York City and Westchester County, and one part of these efforts is the Shared Solar Program, which aims to open participation in renewables to historically underserved markets, notably renters and low-income consumers.

While residential solar has expanded considerably in Con Edison’s service territory in the past several years, solar developers have not focused on low-income consumers since they see a lot of risk with credit scores and payment behavior. However, REV has enabled Con Edison, which is usually not allowed to own generation, to own and operate solar generation if there were customers whose needs were not being met by developers.

Con Edison presented their case to own and operate community solar to the New York Public Service Commission, and the program was approved in August 2017. Con Edison was enabled to spend $9 million in capital funds to add solar arrays to Con Edison-owned rooftops and facilities to deliver renewable energy to low-income customers.

The Share Solar Program expects to serve about 1,000 customers in the low-income electric program, and the customers who enroll will receive an additional bill credit from the solar on top of the credits they’re already receiving from the low-income program, which is about $10-20 on each month’s bill.

Since the initial Shared Solar Program will only reach a fraction of Con Edison’s low-income customers, Con Edison is focusing on community-based outreach to customers that live near the shared solar sites, those that pass the solar panels on their way to work, schools or the grocery and can see the connection between these renewable resources in their neighborhood and the credit on their bills.

A major aim of the program is to better understand low-income consumers and their interest in renewables, so that other solar industry players can be educated on the opportunities for serving this subset of consumers. It’s also important to note that the Shared Solar Program is only one of several programs under REV that aim to bring the benefits of renewables to low- and moderate-income customers.

The Shared Solar Program implementation plan was filed on November 30, 2017, and bids for the solar installations were received in March of this year. Operational solar is expected by the middle of next year, so it will be interesting to see the results of the program toward the end of the decade.

Conclusion

Lower-income consumers are an important group of customers for every electric utility; however, there are challenges that make this group hard to reach. For example, low-income consumers are typically less interested in new energy technologies, and they don’t often see their utility as a trusted partner to help solve their problems.

These hurdles can be overcome, however, as evidenced by the programs noted above and other successful, innovative programs throughout the country. As these programs in California and New York mature, it will be interesting to watch and see whether they succeed in engaging low-income customers. After all, the benefits of the smart energy future should be accessible to all – not only those who can afford it.


Later this month, we will publish our “Spotlight on Low-Income Consumers: Revisiting Their Needs and Wants” report, which will look at the unique needs and wants of low-income residential energy customers. Register for the Research Brief Webinar here.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Do Consumers Really Want Digital Utility Services?

A version of this blog post originally appeared in POWERGRID International magazine. To read the longer article, click here.

Consumers’ expectations for their electricity providers have evolved swiftly in recent years, driven by their daily interactions with tech companies like Apple, Netflix and Lyft, and the increasingly digital business models of other organizations, including banks and telecom companies. This is particularly true for millennials, who are now the largest generation in the U.S.

At the same time, within the energy industry, investments in grid modernization are creating new areas of opportunity for digital and/or data-driven products and services. In fact, according to the EIA, half of U.S. electricity customers had smart meters at the end of 2016 – a two-fold increase from 2010. 

For the most part, electricity providers have not missed the importance of these developments. In recent years, we’ve seen advancements in website functionality, app development and a host of new products and rate plans that take advantage of new technologies.

Given these changes in the energy ecosystem, it’s important that the consumer’s voice is not lost in this sea of opportunity. What exactly do consumers want in next-gen digital offerings from their electricity providers? Would they utilize a one-stop platform to manage their energy usage? And if so, what capabilities would be most helpful in meeting their evolving needs and wants?

To provide insight into this, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) undertook extensive research aimed at getting to the heart of consumers’ needs and wants in the new digital world. Published in January, the “Consumer Platform of the Future” report is an investigation into what the utility industry could look like in the next five years for both consumers and utilities themselves.

The research began with interviews with 16 industry executives to develop a list of functions that a consumer-facing, digital “Platform of the Future” might offer and to define information objectives. We then held four focus groups with consumers to edit the definitions of concepts that could be included and determine how best to describe the options to consumers. Finally, these inputs were used to develop a quantitative survey of 1,292 consumers drawn from a nationally representative online panel.

What is the “Platform of the Future”?

Utilizing the insights gleaned from the industry insider interviews, we developed a cohesive definition of this theoretical Platform of the Future. While we also extrapolated based on some current digital products and services being offering in today’s market, for the purposes of this study, the Platform is a theoretical offering, something that could potentially be available in the next three-to-five years.

That said, our consumer-facing survey described the Platform to panelists in this way:

The Platform is an online energy resource that you can access from your computer, smartphone or tablet. This portal would combine your household’s energy usage data (current and historical), your preference settings, real-time energy usage data, energy provider and third-party programs and offers and use this information to help you understand and manage your energy use. 

What do consumers think of the Platform?

So are consumers really interested in using such a Platform to manage their home energy usage and access additional services from their electricity providers? It appears that, for the most part, consumers do find value in such an offering.

According the survey, roughly half (49 percent) of respondents said they “definitely” or “probably” would use the Platform. By roughly the same proportion, respondents saw the Platform as something new and different that would improve their experience with their energy provider. In addition, only a minute proportion of respondents (four percent) said they “definitely would not” use the Platform.

Looking at interest through our attitudinal segmentation, we see that the Platform does, in fact, have at least some appeal among all segments: forty percent or more of consumers in four of the five segments demonstrate significant interest and are likely to use the Platform.

Among Savings Seekers, a group that’s primarily interested in the financial benefits of any new utility product or service, almost half are interested and would likely use the Platform if they believed they could save money by doing so. Unsurprisingly, consumers in the Status Quo segment are true to type, with fewer than one-fourth expressing any interest in the Platform, but quite notably, 40 percent of consumers in the Technology Cautious segment are “likely” to use the Platform.

Overall, the research shows that there is broad appeal among all types of consumers. Even renters, a typically difficult-to-reach group, express considerable interest in the Platform. These findings reinforce the potential for energy providers to address diverse needs through products and services based on the Platform.

The first step in the Platform journey

While our Platform is a theoretical product that industry executives believe could be offered in the next several years, several electricity providers are already on the journey to offering a Platform-like product.

For example, many electricity providers (including Georgia Power, ComEd and Con Edison) are already offering their customers online marketplaces stocked with a range of energy-efficient and smart home products. Others, like Central Hudson Gas & Electric, are offering marketplaces that make it easier to residential customers to connect with third-party distributed energy resource (DER) providers.

Other electricity providers, like Fort Collins Utilities and Kansas City Power & Light, have already begun to focus on energy “concierge” offerings that make it easier for residential and business customers to connect with energy advisory services.

And today, we're also seeing an increase in bundle offerings from electricity providers to customers that wanted to access several energy-saving products and services. For example, Green Mountain Power’s eHome Program offers homeowners a holistic suite of offerings, including rooftop solar, Tesla Powerwall storage, smart water heaters, Nest thermostats, car charging and weatherization.

Conclusion

It’s no surprise that the energy ecosystem is changing rapidly today. What was once a commodity-based industry is transitioning into a consumer-focused, transactional industry where consumers expect more than just the delivery of energy. A major component of this transition is the emergence of new digital tools, and with the rise of millennials, the demand for digital offerings will only increase.

As the “Consumer Platform” research demonstrates, almost two-thirds of consumers responded that they would use at least one product or service offered them on the Platform, and of those, nearly a quarter indicated they would use four or more products and services. However, quite notably, we learned that the concept of the Platform appeals to consumers in all segments and all demographics.

Consumers clearly respond to the idea of a one-stop digital platform, and as electricity providers plan for the future and create new ways to engage with their customers, it seems that a consumer-facing digital platform should be a major component of their future offerings.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Renters Represent Opportunity for Utility Customer Engagement

A version of this blog post originally appeared on the Eye on the Grid Blog on Electric Light & Power. Read it here.

Among the many demographic shifts shaping the U.S. today, the rise in renting and decline in homeownership seems largely to have fallen under the radar. According to a 2016 Pew report, more Americans rent now than any time in the past 50 years.

While there are many reasons leading to an increase in renting, the Pew data shows that it isn’t a passing fad; renting has steadily trended upwards for 20 years now. Over the past decade, the total number of U.S. households has grown by nearly eight million, yet the number of households headed by owners has stagnated. Those headed by renters have increased 10 percent.

Further, due to the impact of millennials, this trend seems unlikely to slow any time soon. Millennials currently dominate the ranks of renters, yet their pervasiveness among renters reflects more than their current life stage. According to census data, millennials today are “significantly less likely to own their home than prior generations of young adults when they were the same age”.

While this demographic shift likely has a considerable impact in many industries, it has particular relevance for electric utilities, who are already experiencing transformation from a number of other factors and who have traditionally viewed renters as a difficult-to-reach subset of consumers that aren’t necessarily interested in new energy products and services in the same manner that homeowners are.

However, with an evolving and expanding set of renters, do these entrenched beliefs reflect the present-day truth? To determine the attitudes, interests and behaviors of renters as energy consumers, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative conducted a meta-analysis of three previous consumer studies that included over 5,000 total respondents and more than 1,600 renters.

The resulting “Spotlight on Renters” report provides insight and guidance for electric utilities and other stakeholders throughout the energy ecosystem on renters’ interests in various energy-related technologies, programs and offers, their perceptions and attitudes towards their energy providers and more.

Dispelling the myths of who renters really are

Before digging into renters as energy consumers, it’s important to dispel some common myths about who renters are today. While it’s true that young people, students, military families and other groups are common renters, renting is up among many age groups and income brackets, according to a report by real estate website Trulia that mined data from the American Community Survey for the 50 largest U.S. metro areas.

This report showed that renting increased from 33 to 40.7 percent among households aged 35-54 from 2006 to 2014, and quite significantly, that the shift from homeownership to renting was actually more pronounced among middle-class and more affluent Americans. Among those earning between $126,000 to $188,000, for example, renting increased from 27.2 to 33.5 percent.

In many urban areas today, more than half of the population rents, and contrary to stereotypes, these renters are at every stage of their lives and are represented in a wide range of income brackets. It’s important for electric utilities, particularly in those renter-dense areas, to acknowledge the diversity of renters today.

What energy programs and technologies interest renters?

By and large, when comparing renters’ current level of adoption of energy programs or technologies to homeowners’, the former nearly always comes in lower. However, that’s not to say that renters are not actually interested in utility programs or energy-related technologies.

In fact, when looking at many utility programs, including home energy reports, peak-time savings and prepaid billing, we find that renters’ level of interest is noticeably higher than homeowners’. For other programs, like home energy evaluations, energy usage tracking and savings suggestions via a mobile app, interest levels are roughly the same for renters and homeowners.

These findings and the disparity between adoption and interest suggest that there are opportunities to engage renters in many utility programs – as long as renters feel that they have the agency to adopt them. Renters are obviously less able to make major changes to their households and typically are much less likely to own major household appliances, like dishwashers, refrigerators and washing machines. Hence, when we look at renters’ interest in smart appliances, electric vehicles and smart thermostats, we see lower levels than we do from homeowners.

Contrary to this trend, however, is the finding that renters are actually more interested than homeowners in rooftop solar – yet less interested, significantly so, in community solar. This deviation from the expected reflects, perhaps, an opportunity for education and outreach to renters from industry stakeholders involved with community solar projects.

How do renters feel about their electric utilities?

Considering that renters are highly interested in many utility programs but aren’t yet participating in them, how does this translate to their attitudes about their current providers of electricity?

When asked if they would prefer to purchase electricity from their current providers, a telecommunications company, another electric utility or a solar installer, a majority of all respondents – both renters and homeowners – would prefer to stay with their current providers. However, while older homeowners and younger homeowners have similarly high preferences for remaining with their current electricity providers, there’s a considerable discrepancy between older renters and younger renters. Younger renters are by far the most likely to choose an alternate electric utility or a solar installer, like Sunrun, Solar City or Vivint Solar.

Nevertheless, when asked about their satisfaction with their current electricity providers, nearly all renters and homeowners reported being either highly satisfied or moderately satisfied. Again, younger renters are less likely to being highly satisfied, but only slightly less so. Relatively few respondents reported low satisfaction levels.

Opportunities for electric utilities and their partners

While the traditional line of thought suggests that renters are not particularly interested in enrolling in utility programs or even in the value of being more energy efficient, the “Spotlight on Renters” research shows that this isn’t the case.

Although their current enrollment rates tend to be lower, renters’ overall interest in energy programs and technologies are similar to (and sometimes higher than) those of homeowners, and they’re equally as likely as homeowners to be classified as Green Champions, a behavioral segment that is both tech savvy and environmentally conscious. These findings are great news for electric utilities, especially those in areas where renters are a majority of the population.

The “Spotlight on Renters” research also shows that programs that renters can easily participate in without compulsory home improvements are much more likely to garner interest than those that require significant financial investments or the approval of their landlords. For example, two programs that rewarded consumers for shifting their energy usage away from peak periods were more popular with renters than homeowners. Renters also appear to be highly interested in their energy usage data: they were more interested in energy usage reports and app-based savings suggestions and only marginally less interested in electricity usage tracking and alerts.

With renters comprising such a significant segment of the U.S. population today, electric utilities and their partners would do well to create special programs that engage and educate to the specific interests and needs of this group of consumers. The “Spotlight on Renters” research shows that renters are ready to engage, particularly younger renters, but only if programs are tailored to meet their specific needs.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Three Strategies for Educating and Engaging Energy Consumers

You hear it from nearly all utility executives today: The energy industry is pivoting away from the outdated transactional model toward a more customer-centric future.

This transformational shift has manifested itself in many ways across the country. Utilities are restructuring their organizations, implementing new consumer-facing software and improving methods of engaging with their local communities – all with the end goal of better meeting consumers’ evolving needs and wants.

But utilities are not the only ones driving this change. Many nonprofit organizations – including consumer advocates – and technology companies are playing major roles in developing the more consumer-friendly future of the utility industry.

Here are three very different examples of successful consumer engagement and education in the smart grid era:

A Community-Based Education Strategy in Illinois

Illinois is no stranger to energy innovation. In 2011, the state passed its Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, which authorized a $3.2 billion investment in smart grid infrastructure by ComEd and Ameren Illinois. However, in addition to the funds earmarked for infrastructure, the bill also mandated the creation of $50 million in education funding to grow awareness of the smart grid and its benefits to Illinois consumers.

Out of this fund, the Illinois Science & Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF) was born. ISEIF is a nonprofit, grantmaking organization that essentially serves as a third-party education arm for Illinois’ two main utilities. Through two annual grant cycles totaling $5 million, the organization has developed a wide-ranging community of grantees that are deeply embedded in their respective communities.

Unlike traditional utility education efforts, in the ISEIF model, the utility isn’t directly in the picture. The community engagement partners work in their self-defined context and utilize their own self-generated engagement plan, and there’s no utility branding involved. This model gives the messaging much more credibility within the communities than if it had come from directly from a utility.

The results so far validate ISEIF’s unique model. Through their community partners, ISEIF has held over 5,000 community outreach events, which have reached nearly two million individuals. Of the $20 million in funds that have been distributed so far, nearly two-thirds have been allocated to low-income and senior populations, and through the Smart Grid for Schools program, ISEIF has been educating the next generation on the benefits of advanced energy technology. So far, over 35,000 schoolchildren and their parents have been educated through this program.

With the significant infrastructure investments that are being made in grid modernization, it’s important that consumer education is a part of the investment. ISEIF’s model provides a blueprint for effectively educating consumers on the benefits they can receive through smart grid-enabled programs through existing community channels.

Building a Next-Generation Online Platform

In addition to funding ISEIF's education efforts, Chicago-based ComEd has been a leader in utility innovation and has stated that it’s goal is to be the “utility of the future”. As part of this forward-thinking strategy, ComEd worked with Simple Energy to develop an online marketplace stocked with energy-efficient and smart home products.

Consumers today are increasingly referring to their experiences with tech companies like Amazon and Apple as benchmarks for their interactions with other companies, like their electric utilities. Consumers – especially millennials – want personalization, easy-to-use digital solutions and information at their fingertips. These are some of the reasons that drove ComEd to build its Marketplace.

Another is that available rebates for products like LED light bulbs or advanced power strips weren't available in one location and weren't necessarily easy for customers to redeem. With ComEd Marketplace, consumers can instantly apply most rebates (some up to 50-percent off) at check-out, a win-win for ComEd and its customers.

Debuting in the fall of 2016, the ComEd Marketplace has already seen a lot of activity from its customer base. In the first year alone, over 600,000 customers visited the Marketplace and over $4 million in rebates have been issued to customers. Going forward, ComEd aims to expand the Marketplace beyond a transactional e-commerce website by incorporating additional educational resources. The goal for ComEd is that customers see the website as an “energy advocate” that can help with all of their energy-related needs, questions and concerns – not just a place to buy a discounted smart thermostat.

Reaching SMB Customers with Savings

The small or medium-sized business customer is sometimes referred to in the industry as the “least engaged customer”. Unlike residential, commercial or industrial customers, these smaller businesses don’t always have programs that are targeted to their needs or internal resources to really focus on their energy usage and costs. However, in recent years, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has developed a comprehensive outreach strategy, dubbed the Business Best Rate Campaign, to help these customers effortlessly save on their monthly bills.

Realizing that many of their customers in this segment don’t have the energy knowledge or resources required to reduce their monthly bills, PG&E decided on a proactive approach. While PG&E has had an online rate tool for SMB customers for several years, it wasn’t really being used regularly by these customers. So, PG&E conducted a rate analysis of these customers’ accounts and reached out first with phone calls and in-person visits followed by emails and letters that clearly stated the possible savings.

In the first year of the Business Best Rate Campaign, PG&E’s SMB customers realized over $1 million in savings on their bills. Based on this initial success, PG&E expanded the program in 2017, making it even easier for SMB customers to switch rate plans and save. Customers can now respond to the rate change emails with just one click or select a “Remind Me Later” button if they need more time to decide. Hoping to expand the message of the campaign, PG&E is also investing in online ads, e-newsletters and other new channels to reach a wider range of customers.

Three Strategies, One Focus: The Consumer

The maturation of the smart grid era is creating numerous opportunities for utilities and other stakeholders to further engage with energy consumers. While many of these are driven by technology, creative outreach via traditional methods (i.e., telephone and in-person visits) is also more important today than ever before. With the scope of new programs and services available today to help customers save money and have better experiences with their utilities, customer engagement and education are the keys for all stakeholders to effectively realize the promised benefits of the smart grid.


These customer engagement success stories were originally covered in 2017 as case studies. To learn more, download the full case studies here. A webinar recording featuring these three programs is also available here.

Friday, November 3, 2017

What's Working in the Smart Grid Era?

With many utility service territories in the United States now post-Advanced Metering Infrastructure deployment, consumer programs enabled by the smart grid have now had several years to mature. Pilot programs have been shelved, tweaked based on participant response and, in some cases, rolled out to the full customer base.

Looking back at the experiences of the past decade, what have we as an industry learned about creating successful smart grid-enabled consumer programs? And have these programs, thus far, been able to effectively deliver promised benefits to energy consumers?

Finding the right setting for smart thermostats in SoCal

Southern California Edison (SCE) has been on the forefront of AMI deployment and smart energy programs and has developed a number of pilot programs over the years to determine what their customers really want. The investor-owned utility, which provides power to about 15 million residents of Southern California, began its AMI investment back in 2009 and has now fully deployed five million smart meters in its service territory.

After installing smart meters, SCE originally thought that the consumer experience for home energy programs would rely on the ZigBee Smart Energy radio that was included in each smart meter. SCE believed a retail market for ZigBee Smart Energy Profile (SEP) devices would develop and that customers would purchase Home Area Network (HAN) devices that could be leveraged for programs like demand response and real-time home energy information.

In the first few years after AMI deployment, SCE experimented with a range of pilot programs – from a meter-connected in-home display (IHD) program to a partnership with home security company ADT that displayed energy information on a security touchscreen. However, most of the programs during this period received only low or moderate consumer interest, and the retail market for smart energy products moved in a different direction than SCE initially anticipated.

Over time, internet-connected smart thermostats and home automation systems proved more popular in the consumer marketplace than HAN devices, and although a connection to the meter is required for real-time energy information, the internet also emerged in recent years as a viable alternative for signaling demand response events.

In the summer of 2013, SCE piloted two smart thermostat-based demand response programs: one with a third-party, internet-only device and one with a meter-connected device. The former program proved to be overwhelmingly more popular with customers. Nearly 20 percent of customers (2,800 participants) in the outreach campaign enrolled in the third-party program compared to only 1.3 percent in the meter-connected program (430 participants). The internet-connected smart thermostat program also resulted in a 90 percent reduction in costs for SCE since the thermostat manufacturers handled much of the outreach and marketing.

Based on the pilot results, SCE discontinued the meter-connected program and decided to expand its third-party smart thermostat program. In addition, to mitigate the effects of the Aliso Canyon gas leak in the summer of 2016 (many of SCE’s peaker plants are powered by natural gas), SCE began offering a $125 incentive to enroll in the smart thermostat demand response program in conjunction with SoCalGas ($75 from SCE, $50 from SoCalGas), which had a substantial impact on enrollment. SCE has also added eligible thermostat brands to the program, which has further increased program popularity. Today, program enrollment is over 40,000, compared with just under 3,000 in the pilot year.

Over the years, SCE has seen the its customer base reap the benefits from its investments in the smart grid, but not always in ways it expected. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, its customers didn't seem to see the benefits in having access to real-time energy information -- except for a small customer segment that is highly interested in it. However, customers did see benefits from demand response program participation with smart thermostats; they were able to receive initial and ongoing incentives for reducing energy with minimal impact to the comfort of their homes.

Moving forward, SCE plans to continue to look for ways to leverage consumer market preferences and establish partnerships with non-utility companies with a shared customer base. With the success of its smart thermostat program, the utility is also researching technologies that might be the “next smart thermostat”, including electric vehicles, home automation systems and smart appliances.

Creating a customer-friendly landscape in Illinois

In the Land of Lincoln, significant investment and effort has gone into ensuring that smart grid-enabled programs and services actually serve to benefit consumers and not only utilities, generation companies or other stakeholders. Founded in the early '80s to protect consumers from nuclear power cost overruns, the Illinois Citizens Utility Board (CUB) has been at the forefront of these efforts, serving as a “voice of the consumer” in the Illinois Commerce Commission, Illinois General Assembly and court system, when necessary.

CUB also conducts extensive consumer education and outreach on utility issues, including participating in over 500 community events each year (one-on-one bill consultations, library events, community festivals, etc.) and operating a direct hotline that typically receives about 7,000 calls per year on utility-related questions and complaints. This adds up to a lot of experience on consumers’ primary pain points in their relationship with their utilities.

While CUB has the reputation, one they willingly accept, as a gadfly that's always getting on the utilities’ cases, they generally have a positive outlook on the energy-related changes that are taking place in Illinois. Consumers today have access to a number of tools to take charge of their energy usage, and these programs, thus far, seem to be working for the consumers’ benefit and have generally high satisfaction from those who have used them.

Both major Illinois electric utilities, Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), are fairly far along in their AMI rollouts and share a lot of the same utility programs in their respective halves of the state. CUB has typically been supportive of many of these programs, including energy efficiency, A/C cycling, hourly pricing and peak-time rebates, and has been active in educating consumers on the benefits of these programs and, in many cases, also enrolling them.

Over the years, CUB has gained significant experience about what it takes for energy-saving programs to be effective for consumers. One important factor is that utilities offer a variety of programs that meet the needs of different types of consumers. For example, some consumers may gravitate toward ground-level, low-risk programs (like peak-time rebate), while others may prefer programs that require more in-depth engagement or initial financial investment (like a smart appliance-based program). In CUB’s view, utilities also must be acutely aware of the digital divide that exists between various cohorts of consumers and design programs accordingly.

Of course, for CUB to support a particular utility program, it’s essential that it actually works in the ways that the utility claims it does, i.e. that it’s easy to understand and enroll in, that the technology functions smoothly, that promises are kept and that customer service provides adequate support. Finally, when looking for an effective utility program, CUB wants to see the utility involved take a holistic view for how it fits in the consumer’s world, which can help overcome barriers to entry. On this point, CUB works extensively with the Illinois Science & Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF), a nonprofit that supports energy consumer education.

Has Illinois been able to move the needle on realizing consumer benefits from its smart grid investments? So far, the answer is overwhelmingly “yes”. When AMI rollout started in Illinois, there was some apprehension that there would be a significant consumer backlash and that consumers wouldn't take advantage of smart meter-enabled programs. However, neither have come to fruition thus far.

Overall, Illinois consumers have been highly satisfied with new energy programs, and the utilities have seen relatively high enrollment numbers. In many cases, CUB has seen consumers that you wouldn't necessarily expect to see as “early adopters” enrolling in these programs. In addition, Illinois recently passed the Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) to build on the AMI investment with the expansion of distributed energy resources.

Conclusion

While we're still relatively early in the smart grid era, in Southern California and Illinois at least, progress is being made in effectively delivering benefits to consumers from the significant investments that have been made in the smart grid. As early supporters of smart grid technologies, Ameren, ComEd and SCE (along with the stakeholders that work with them) have been able to learn from first- and second-generation programs and apply these lessons to design programs and services that more adequately meet their customers’ needs. Efforts are already underway in both areas to further capitalize on smart grid investments in order to bring additional benefits to consumers.


To learn more about how investments in the smart grid have resulted in benefits for consumers, register for the 2018 Consumer Symposium on Monday, Jan. 22 in San Antonio.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

With REV Underway, Where Is New York on Energy Awareness and Engagement?

With the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) strategy, the State of New York has established itself as a leader in re-thinking how electric utilities can transform to better serve customers now and in the future. In 2015, when the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) initiated its REV proceeding, the primary focus was on fundamental changes to the ways that utilities provide distribution services.

Earlier this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dramatically expanded REV, and while the utility issues are still central to the strategy, it has now become an umbrella term for all of the energy initiatives of the State of New York – currently 41 different programs and initiatives across the state, including projects like offshore wind generation. Among the primary goals, REV aims broadly to help consumers make informed decisions, protect the environment, create new jobs and economic opportunities and spur development of new energy products and services. 

With this background in mind, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) partnered with the New York State Smart Grid Consortium (NYSSGC), a public-private partnership that promotes the implementation of a safe, secure and reliable smart grid in New York, to determine the impact of REV, grid modernization and Advance Metering Infrastructure (AMI) deployment on New Yorkers’ awareness of and attitudes toward important energy issues.

As part of SGCC’s “Consumer Pulse and Market Segmentation Study – Wave 6”, SGCC and NYSSGC surveyed over 700 New Yorkers via online panel. The results of the surveying were released in July as the “New York Consumer Pulse Study”, a comprehensive look at New Yorker’s awareness and interest in today’s key energy technologies, policies, programs and services, including community solar, smart meters, grid modernization, electric vehicles and clean energy expansion. Here are a few of the standout findings from the report.

Support for REV

The “New York Consumer Pulse Study” highlighted an interesting disparity between the awareness and support of REV. The survey found that only 16 percent of New Yorkers are aware that their state is undertaking a grid modernization effort that includes developing smart grid and smart meter infrastructure, and only one-in-five New Yorkers say that they’re aware of REV. Just three percent state that they have visited REV’s website.

Despite this, half of New Yorkers stated that they would be interested in learning more about REV, and after the REV goals were listed for the survey respondents, 56 percent stated that they were supportive of the goals. There is some variation in the state, however; for nearly all of the above questions, Downstate New Yorkers (those living in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island) report being notably more aware and more supportive.

Support for clean energy and affordability

The “New York Consumer Pulse Study” also investigated support for clean energy investment and expansion across the State of New York. Unlike support for REV, which just cracked 50 percent of respondents, New Yorkers are clear about their support for clean energy investment – regardless of the region of the state. Nearly 80 percent of all New Yorkers support investments in clean energy, and 85 percent of Downstate residents support these efforts. Two-thirds of Downstate New Yorkers also believe that the State of New York should do more to incentivize electric vehicles, and half of all New Yorkers believe the state should promote the development of microgrids.

In addition to the questions on clean energy, the survey also asked respondents about support for energy affordability. A convincing majority (71 percent) of New Yorkers believe that the State of New York should do more to make energy more affordable for lower-income residents. In the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan, 82 percent of residents believe this.

Consumer awareness of the smart grid

In the sixth wave of “Consumer Pulse and Market Segmentation Study”, published in late May, we found that 72 percent of consumers were aware of smart meters and 70 percent were aware of the smart grid. Notably, this was the first time in six studies, dating back to 2011, that a majority of consumers were aware of smart meters and the smart grid.

In New York, consumer awareness of the smart grid and smart meters is slightly lower, but still well above the majority, at 68 and 65 percent, respectively. While in the national sample more consumers were aware of smart meters than the smart grid, New Yorkers are slightly more aware of the smart grid. Unlike many parts of the country, smart meters are only recently being introduced throughout New York, making the stated level awareness somewhat impressive despite it being lower than the national average. So far, only certain customers in the service territories of Avangrid and Consolidated Edison have had smart meters installed.

Conclusion

While consumer awareness in the State of New York seem to be, for the time at least, lagging somewhat behind Governor Cuomo’s forward-thinking initiatives, many New Yorkers, especially those Downstate, are generally supportive of advancements and investments in smart metering, the smart grid and renewable energy. This landscape creates a multitude of opportunities for energy industry stakeholders in New York for consumer education and, ultimately, participation. For more information about New Yorkers and their energy-related awareness, attitudes and preferences, download a complimentary copy of the “New York Consumer Pulse Study” here.


To learn more about the consumer benefits of the smart grid and related technologies and how energy industry stakeholders are moving the needle on realizing these promised benefits, sign up for our Sept. 21 Peer Connect Webinar.

Monday, July 24, 2017

How Can Energy Usage Data Be Leveraged to Benefit Consumers?

Data can be a valuable tool for better engaging consumers and developing improved products and services; however, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how utilities and other organizations can safely utilize energy usage data for these purposes.

With their new Anonymous Data Service program, Commonwealth Edison is one of the utilities that is exploring this emerging area. As the Chicago-based utility nears the completion of their Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) deployment, they realized that one of the key impacts of their smart meter rollout could be the availability of interval energy usage data.

Before rolling out their data program, ComEd conducted secondary research to understand how this data could be used and who, in particular, would use it. The research determined that some of the potential third-party targets for this new offering would be retail energy suppliers, nonprofits, municipalities, educational institutions, tech companies, consultants and potentially even solar developers.

Next, the utility set out to determine exactly how much data would be useful to the most third-party participants and how to present this data to them. While a handful of interested parties had internal data-mining capabilities and wanted as much granular data as could be made available, some smaller organizations, on the other hand, were only interested in one or several zip codes. After weighing the various needs of potential future users, ComEd developed the first rollout of the Anonymous Data Service offering, a unique product in today’s market and potentially a sign of things to come.

The initial product offering for ComEd’s Anonymous Data Service includes up to 24 months of 30-minute interval energy usage data on a meter-per-meter basis – not aggregated. The data sets include data for all zip codes where AMI has already been deployed in ComEd’s service territories that, importantly, meet a data privacy protocol specified by the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC). This protocol is called the 15/15 protocol, meaning that within each data set there has to be at least 15 samples and not one of the 15 samples can have 15 percent or more of the group’s energy usage. The goal here is to not identify any specific customer within the data set.

Here's how the program works for third-party data requestors. Each month, ComEd generates and uploads the anonymous data files for the previous month. Interested parties can sign-up for the service on ComEd's Anonymous Data Service website and download the files after payment confirmation is received. External entities will then have a 35-day window to access the data files via ShareFile before access closes. Costs start at $900, depending on exactly which data set is being requested.

So how can a product like ComEd's Anonymous Data Service that allows for the secure transmission of interval energy data to third parties ultimately benefit consumers? Two nonprofit organizations based in Chicago – the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF) and Elevate Energy – recently discussed ComEd's new program, focusing on the potential benefits to consumers, during an SGCC webinar.

According to Clare Butterfield, the Program Director at ISEIF, the program represents a good shift in directionality for a major utility like ComEd. The grid was built for electricity to flow out from distribution utilities, and data to flow in. But data now needs to flow out as well. While this is a first good step, the program should go further in the future, Clare believes, and the next critical step is for consumers to gain access to their data and to be able to decide for themselves whether there’s a third-party service provider that they would like to share their data with.

Larry Kotewa, the Chief Engineer at Elevate Energy, echoed the same essential sentiment as Clare – this is a great first step for ComEd, but he would like to see the program expanded. While this is a rich, granular data set, Larry points out that currently users of ComEd’s program won’t be able to get a longitudinal understanding of consumers’ behavior due to the changing user ID numbers each month. Since so much of consumers’ energy usage depends on weather, Larry argues that this is currently somewhat of a drawback of the anonymous data sets; however, Larry also notes that ComEd customers can currently access their own energy usage data through the Green Button program, in which ComEd is a participant.

On the data privacy side, both Clare and Larry feel that the 15/15 protocol, which is one of many rules that applies for the ComEd program, really does provide individuals with adequate personal data privacy. It would be “extremely hard” to say that an anonymous ID belongs to a particular customer, according to Larry, and the Illinois Citizens Utility Board (CUB), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that represent the interests of residential utility customers in Illinois, was actively involved in developing the 15/15 protocol.

As the proliferation of AMI continues across the country, the resultant interval usage data from consumers’ smart meters has the potential to be utilized for any number of cutting-edge innovations. While consumer data sharing programs, including Green Button Connect, are still in their early stages, ComEd’s Anonymous Data Service seems to be a step in the right direction toward empowering consumers and enabling a smarter energy future.



Are you ready to meet the needs and expectations of millennials as energy consumers? Sign up for our next webinar on August 9 to gain a foundation for understanding this increasingly important group of energy consumers.