Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Examining the State of Today's Smart Grid Consumers

Earlier this year, SGCC published the "2017 State of the Consumer Report" to better understand consumer trends and preferences on smart grid-enabled products and services. This report utilized SGCC's 2016 research projects, industry trends in consumer engagement and six utility case studies to create a meta-analysis of how consumers have benefited from more utility outreach and advancements in grid modernization.

Here's a rundown of six things we learned about today's smart grid consumers:

It’s about consumer needs

The first finding is that consumer interest transcends technology. In “The Empowered Consumer”, we studied consumer awareness of and interest in nine different smart energy offerings. We partitioned the sample into states that could be considered advanced in respect to their smart grid implementation and those that could be considered the control (or not-as-advanced) states. We found that awareness and interest in the offerings were not significantly different among consumers in advanced or control states.

However, when we re-framed the data according to our segmentation framework, we learned that interest in technologies follows well-established consumer attitudes and values about energy. The conclusion is that consumer values drive interest, and policy and incentives boost adoption.

Effectively framing the benefits

The second takeaway is that marketing effectiveness (or how an offer is framed) is key to adoption. Consumers overwhelming want control and choice. In “Consumer Driven Technologies”, we asked consumers what kind of solar energy they would prefer, and over 80 percent indicated “residential solar”, because they see this as offering the most control over their system.

In “The Empowered Consumer”, a majority of consumers chose a time-of-use rate over a standard rate plan when offered variable options with different premium and discount levels, because they see this as offering them control while saving money. In the same study, we also learned that when awareness is high yet interest is low, carefully configured, personalized marketing programs targeting specific segments are most effective. However, when awareness is also low, a broad-based, multi-channel education campaign is called for around the financial, reliability and environmental benefits.

Balancing four elements of program design

The third key finding is that program design matters. Program design can be thought about as the interplay between four elements: the level of control that the consumer retains, what incentive they could realize by participating, the transaction burden (the amount of time and effort they need to invest to participate) and the amount of personal information they need to share. Both the incentives and burdens can be upfront and ongoing. Calibrating these four elements to the right proportion will determine marketing effectiveness.

In “The Empowered Consumer”, we presented consumers with a smart thermostat utility program and adjusted five elements – installation method, demand response (DR) enablement, incentive amount, incentive payment method and qualifying thermostat capabilities – to see which would result in the highest level of interest. The ideal configuration is a program with DIY installation, programmable weather adjustment capabilities, no DR capability and a $250 rebate. Nearly 70 percent of consumers expressed interest in this program. The art here is assessing the balance of give and take to maximize consumer interest and benefit.

Cost barriers are crucial

The fourth theme is that cost barriers are a major deal for consumers. This was demonstrated clearly in our “Consumer Driven Technologies” research; the top three barriers to solar adoption and the second-most cited barrier to EV adoption were all related to financial issues.

Looking at consumers that have already adopted solar, about 80 percent own their solar PV system, while a minority lease a solar PV system or have signed a solar power purchase agreement with a developer. However, if we look at those who have not yet adopted solar but are interested in doing so, there's a higher level of interest in non-ownership models.

This could be related to larger cultural trends as seen in the Sharing Economy. Companies like Lyft and Airbnb are causing consumers, especially Millennials, to re-think the necessity of ownership. Another major factor is the policy environment. While consumer interest is not significantly affected by policy environment, adoption is to some extent influenced by policy. If you're living in a state with support or incentives for solar and EVs, adoption will likely be higher in your state.

Consumer engagement is constant

The fifth finding is to remember the post-purchase engagement. Today's utilities have a number of touchpoints with consumers, some that are consumer initiated and others initiated by the energy provider, that are all opportunities to improve consumer engagement and satisfaction. Today's consumers are comparing the customer service of utilities to other industries, including banks, online retailers, health care providers and others, as we saw in our “Customer Experience & Expectations” research. Looking at problem remediation, consumers rated banks as the best providers of customer service by a significant margin; however, 44 percent of consumers placed utilities in their top three best customer service providers, second only to banks and 11 percentage points over online retailers.

While utilities are doing reasonably well in customer service, they could look to banks to see can what can be done next to further improve the customer experience. For example, banks have invested heavily in online and mobile banking and are, generally speaking, considerably farther ahead in offering easy-to-use mobile experiences to their customers. It’s these customer experiences with banks, online retailers and others that consumers have on their mind interacting with their own utility and weighing the customer service received.

Facing a consumer-oriented future

The final finding is that several recurring elements in SGCC research point to a changing business model for utilities. First, research suggests that energy consumers are willing to pay for products and services if they truly understand and value the programs. Consumers are interested in what electricity costs them and what it costs them to participate in programs that will save them energy and money; however, these consumer benefits need to be clearly communicated. In “The Empowered Consumer”, we found that over half of consumers are willing to pay for programs like energy concierge services, personalized savings suggestions via an app and automated heating and cooling services – a figure that may be surprising to some.

Second, there are several exciting things happening now in the energy ecosystem. Consumers show a clear propensity to look to their utility for trusted information, and utilities can take advantage of this by delivering information clearly in a personalized way. Partnerships are also going to be more important going forward since utilities may not have all of the expertise required to meet the needs of today’s consumers. Lastly, utilities should consider the policy environment and advocate for policies that get consumers over the hump toward adoption. Collectively, these trends point to a future where utilities can effectively meet the personalized needs of their evolving consumers.

Our next webinar, Customer Engagement Success Stories, will look at successful consumer engagement programs that incorporate many of the key themes discussed in the “2017 State of the Consumer Report”.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Taking a Look at the Present and Future of Mobile Engagement for Utility Customers

Mobile devices have become the center of many consumers' lives, especially in the increasingly important Millennial demographic, but to what extent have mobile solutions been adopted by electric utilities? And are consumers actually engaging in or interested in engaging in a mobile experience from their energy provider?

SGCC's Deputy Director Nathan Shannon led a webinar last month to look at how utilities are currently engaging consumers via mobile devices and their plans for the next few years. Joining Nathan on the presentation were speakers from utilities Xcel Energy and Duke Energy and solutions provider Bidgely.

To begin the webinar, Nathan asked attendees to complete a quick poll on whether their energy provider offered a mobile app and if yes, whether they regularly used it. The majority of respondents (60 percent) stated that their utility currently did not offer a mobile app, while only 27 percent indicated that their utility both offered an app and that they were currently using it. This quick, unscientific poll provided some context to the current state of the mobile landscape for utilities. Many utilities are currently not offering apps, or they're still in the early stages of development.

The first speaker on the webinar was Shawn Bielke, product portfolio manager for the customer experience group at Xcel Energy. Shawn's presentation focused on Xcel's guiding principles for mobile experience and the roadmap to development for the utility's yet-to-be-released mobile app.

In the development of their mobile app, Xcel has been guided by five customer-driven principles:

1.       Leverage customer data to offer a personalized experience.
2.       Provide actionable and relevant information.
3.       Enable data to be specific and have the ability to view and manipulate.
4.       Provide transparency into information available and Xcel's practices.
5.       Make it easy and enjoyable.

Prior to the development of Xcel's mobile app, the utility conducted extensive consumer research to identify the most important features. Xcel conducted focus groups, ethnographies and co-creation sessions and asked customers to show them what their ideal energy app would look like.

The first release of the Xcel Energy app will be in mid-May 2017 and will feature reporting an outage capability, an outage map, billing information, a bill pay option and more. The second version, planned for later in 2017, will feature more of the energy efficiency-related updates. Consumers will have access to their energy usage data, comparisons with their neighbors, energy tips and the ability to enroll in energy programs.

Looking out a few years, Xcel plans to continue to build out the app with new features to engage and inform customers. Based on Xcel's research, they have learned that energy usage is likely to be the key driver of engagement with an app. Xcel also wants to include more information about their efforts in renewable energy.

The second segment of the webinar featured Kelly Wyche, product developer with the Energy Innovation team at Duke Energy. Kelly works in a division at Duke Energy that develops innovative customer programs like energy efficiency, demand response, community-based renewable programs and other pilot programs that may eventually be rolled out to a larger set of customers.

One of the division's latest products has been a Smart Meter Usage App for Duke Energy customers that currently have a smart meter. The app provides customers with the opportunity to view, monitor and engage with their energy usage to make behavioral changes and, ultimately, save money.

In addition to the mobile app, this product also includes a hardware component. By using an Energy Bridge that connects to the customer's smart meter via radio technology, customers can actually view their energy usage in real time. Yet, even if customers do not opt to use the Energy Bridge, they can still see meter data from the previous day in 30-minute intervals on the mobile app.

In both instances, Duke believes the app adds additional consumer value for consumers that get a smart meter; however, Duke expects to see the highest levels of engagement from customers that experience connected home control with the Energy Bridge.

Duke Energy is also currently developing its Gateway app, an all-inclusive app that will have bill pay options, report-an-outage capability and additional features. The end goal for Duke is to eventually pull together the Smart Meter Usage App and the Gateway app to make one app that will have everything consumers want from their utility. Both programs will undergo pilot programs to fine-tune the technology and consumer experience. With the Smart Meter Usage App specifically, Duke Energy is launching a 10,000 customer pilot and planning for scalability over the next five years.

The final speaker on this webinar was Josh Gleason, head of product marketing at Bidgely, a software company that is transforming utility customer engagement by leveraging the power of energy data disaggregation.

Josh began his presentation with some important data on today’s consumers. Seventy-seven percent of U.S. consumers have a smartphone, but if you look at the 18-49 demographic, that number is closer to 90 percent. On top of that, digital screen time is increasingly skewing toward smartphone usage and away from desktops. These numbers suggest, as Josh argues, the growing reliance on the smartphone and that the mobile channel is becoming the preferred channel of contact for consumers.

Further, according to Navigant Research, utility executives view “customer expectations” as the second greatest disruptive force to their businesses over the next five years after “increased regulatory requirements”. If the mobile channel is going to play a major role in those customer expectations, then, according to Josh, the time is now for utilities to prepare their mobile strategy. However, at the same time, while utilities may understand on some level that they will need to develop a mobile strategy, utilities don’t currently feel confident in their ability to engage customers with a mobile app.

With all of these statistical inputs point to a gap in mobile solution awareness and readiness, Bidgely designed a playbook in 2016 that helps utilities evaluate the landscape of mobile solution. Josh discussed the five key points for utilities to consider when building out an app, including the required functionality, leveraging a platform approach and the build vs. buy decision.

Based on the context provided by Josh, it's clear that consumers are going to desire mobile solutions from their utilities in the near future. As utilities place a growing importance on consumer engagement and expectations moving forward, the mobile channel is going to play an increasingly important role in their efforts. Forward-thinking utilities like Xcel and Duke are already moving down the path toward delivering a consumer-friendly, multi-functional mobile solution for their customers.

Following the three speakers' presentations, a Q&A session was conducted. SGCC members can listen to that recording here. And don't forget to sign up for our next webinar, which will focus on key takeaways from the "2017 State of the Consumer Report".

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Three Things We Learned at 2017 Consumer Symposium

Over 130 attendees gathered last month in advance of DistribuTECH for SGCC's Seventh Annual Consumer Symposium. The event featured the release of the “2017 State of the Consumer Report”, the presentation of the 2017 CLEAR Awards and many engaging sessions on the present and future of consumer engagement in smart energy. In case you couldn’t make it to this year’s Symposium (or if you'd just like to review your favorite sessions), many of the presentation materials are available for download here.

Looking back at the event, here are three key takeaways that we learned in San Diego:

1) Smart grid is foundational to the smart city

Jesse Berst, SGCC's founder and the current president of Smart Cities Council, joined us for the much-anticipated keynote address, and he did not disappoint.

Jesse provided an overview of smart cities and smart city projects that have been completed or are underway across the globe. This transformation in public health, transportation, water, public safety and energy is not a distant pipe dream; this is already well underway in many of the world's cities.

In his overview of the smart city, Jesse identified three key components: collect, communication and compute. Through a citywide network of censors, real-time data is collected that tells us the status of highways, buildings and other city infrastructure. Different parts of the smart city can communicate directly with each other, improving efficiency. And finally, the smart city computes for predictive analytics and real-time optimization.

The goal of the smart city is fairly simple: to make city residents happier, healthier and more productive while using fewer resources.

Jesse then focused on the role that the smart grid plays in the smart city; electricity along with telecommunications is one of the two pillars of a smart city. Smart city projects aim to improve livability, workability and sustainability of our urban areas, but without advancements in smart energy, the objectives of the smart city won’t be fully realized.

2) Customers of all income levels are interested in smart energy programs

Jeff Weiser, PayGo, discussing pre-pay program benefits
One of the most popular panels of the day was “Shattering the Myth of the Digital Divide” led by Georgia Watch’s Liz Coyle and featuring panelists from PayGo, Con Edison, Elevate Energy and Nest Labs. The session focused on how to customize outreach and tailor programs to low-income consumers and how to empower these consumers to engage in smart energy programs.

Low-income consumers are often left out of the conversation around smart energy, but this group of consumers may have the most to gain by participating in these programs. Energy bills are often the third-highest fixed bill each month for low-income Americans. Lowering energy bills can make a big difference in these consumers’ lives, and they are very interested in engaging in smart energy programs if utilities connect with them.

The panelists then provided some examples of engagement with low-income consumers. Chris Raup from Con Edison talked about the utility’s pilot program for making clean, renewable energy available to low-income customers at no cost. Consumers enrolled in the utility’s low-income bill assistance program can access solar energy and can see savings over $60 per year, according to early estimates.

Jeff Gleeson of Nest Labs discussed a program designed to get significantly discounted, refurbished smart thermostats into the homes of lower-income consumers, and Elle Corrado discussed Elevate Energy’s energy efficiency programs and community outreach programs in the Chicago area. Jeffrey Weiser, CEO of PayGo, talked about the company's innovative pre-pay solution that allows consumers to see their energy usage in real time. This economical solution allows consumers to set budgets and view their up-to-the-minute usage on their mobile app or through text or email notifications.

The main takeaway from this panel seemed to be the consensus among all participants that low-income consumers are very interested in participating smart energy programs if they are aware of them and if the outreach focuses on benefits (especially cost savings) they will see.

3) Sharing of consumer usage data is essential for smart grid 2.0

Some of the most vibrant debate of the day was during the “Safely Unlocking the Value of Consumer Data” panel led by Judith Schwarz, president of To the Point, and featuring participants from Illinois Citizens Utility Board, IBM, Opower and Green Button Alliance.

After recent high-profile data breaches in the health care and retail sectors, consumers are rightfully wary about how their energy data is being shared and stored. Protecting consumer data is important, and communicating a commitment to protecting consumer's privacy is critical as smart energy technology proliferates.

Most consumer-facing smart energy programs require either real-time or interval data to get the highest outcome from the program. According to Mission:Data, simply providing consumers with access to their energy data enables household energy savings averaging more than 12 percent.

Much of the discussion in this session focused on the Department of Energy's DataGuard program and how it can be considered a Good Housekeeping-type seal of approval for the energy data – an easy reference point for consumers to know their data is safe. DataGuard is an energy data privacy program that was designed and developed by industry stakeholders to provide consumers assurance that their energy data is being protected and treated responsibly. The voluntary program provides principles around the access, use and sharing of customer data.

Key tenets of the DataGuard program include, for example, customers being given prior notice about privacy-related policies and practices and customers having a degree of control over access to their own data.

In order for smart grid 2.0 to achieve its aims, consumer data will need to play an integral role. And for this to happen, consumers need to feel that their data is being safely handled by industry stakeholders.

Thank you to everyone that participated in this year’s Consumer Symposium. We hope you enjoyed this year’s event and discovered new insights and applicable takeaways on today’s smart energy consumers. If you have any feedback on the event, we would love to hear from you.

Finally, we have just announced the dates for our 2017 Members Meeting and Fall Workshop. Thanks to the gracious support of host, Austin Energy, we will be in Austin, Texas on Sept. 13-14. Mark your calendars! More information and registration will be available in the coming weeks at www.smartgridcc.org

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Exploring Consumer Expectations in the World of Amazon, Uber and Apple

Last week, following the Jan. 9 release of the “Customer Experience & Expectations” report, we presented a webinar to delve into some of the key findings of the research. I was joined on the presentation by Bridget Meckley, SGCC's Research Coordinator, and Gomathi Sadhasivan, Lead of Customer Decision Sciences at DNV GL, and SGCC's Research Committee Chair.

Bridget started things off with an overview of the research. SGCC undertook this research as we wanted to truly understand whether experiences with a variety of service providers were affecting how consumers viewed their energy provider. Grid modernization has now been going on for several years, and we sought to understand how the environment is changing.

For this research project, we conducted a survey of 2,000 online respondents and collected information on consumer awareness of smart grid concepts and benefits, interest in six value propositions and experiences and preferences for six typical touchpoints in the consumer-provider relationship.

In all of our research, we try to understand consumer behavior and attitudes, and for the “Customer Experience & Expectations” research, we looked at consumers through three dimensions:
  • SGCC's segmentation framework: Green Champions, Savings Seekers, Status Quo, Movers & Shakers and Technology Cautious
  • Technology use: All tech, leisure tech, transaction and no tech
  • Energy use: Significant use, average use and baseline use

Value propositions

Within this framework of consumer segments, energy user profiles and technology use, we examined consumer propensities for six value propositions and six touchpoints.

For each value proposition presented to consumers, we looked at four elements:

  • Control – the amount of control that the consumers retains
  • Transaction burden – the consumer's investment in money, time and/or effort
  • Information sharing – the level of personal information that the consumer must share   
  • Incentive – the size of any benefit plus any other inducements
While both transaction burden and information sharing do seem to have some impact on consumer interest, we found that control has an enormous effect on consumers' willingness to participate in a program. However, for value proposition six, we took away consumers’ control and still saw a fair level of consumer interest due to a high incentive offered.

Consumers make trade-offs every day in their purchases, and how energy stakeholders mix and match the trade-offs is important in how they structure and communicate offers.

Finally, Bridget closed this section by reviewing key tips for marketing offers for consumers from the updated version of the “Consumer Value Proposition”, which will be released in the coming weeks by SGCC’s Education & Outreach Committee:
  1. Use specific, positive words and phrases
  2. Dependable service, economic benefit and quick power restoration appeal to almost all consumers, but marketers need to focus on the end results not the process.
  3. Use short, direct statements.


Next, Bridget turned the presentation over to Gomathi, who covered the touchpoints that consumers generally have with their utilities and other service providers.

We looked at the typical things that every consumer does with any service provider – pay a pill, sign up for a service, report a problem, resolve a problem, receive personalized offers and receive general information. We used these touchpoints to help consumers tell us what they liked and who did those things well.

For bill payment, consumers reflect a desire for ease; more than half indicate that they prefer to pay their utility bill online. However, Status Quo and Technology Cautious consumers do still prefer to pay by a check in the mail.

When probing customers on how they would like to receive general information, customers prefer to be able to access that info on their own time for customer-initiated interactions. Across all segments the favored method is a website inquiry, and a phone call with a customer service representative was a distant second for most segments. This touchpoint reveals that autonomy is important to all consumers, as most consumers do not prefer to receive information through push notifications or monthly emails.

When customers are looking for information that may be deemed complex or unusual, however, customers overwhelmingly prefer a high-touch method. When establishing a service, 64 percent prefer a phone call, web chat or in-person contact. When reporting a problem, 77 percent prefer phone, webchat or in-person contact. And finally, when resolving a problem, over 80 percent of consumers prefer a phone call, web chat or in-person contact.

Next, we took a look at personalized product and service offers aimed at consumers and compared utilities against online retailers, banks, telecommunications companies and home security companies, to name a few. The key takeaway from this part of the research is that over half of consumers believe that no service providers do this well. Not a single service provider passes the 20 percent mark, but utilities do come out on top at 17 percent.

This represents a huge opportunity for utilities as they have access to customers’ energy consumption history, and this data can be mined to develop tailored offers customers value and find useful.


For the final section, we reviewed opportunities for utilities that can be taken away from this research. While utilities are doing relatively well overall at providing customer service, they have much to learn about innovation, at least in consumers’ minds. Banks and online retailers, for example, are regarded as much more innovative than utilities.

When asked whether they believe that utilities are “consistent”, “knowledgeable”, “efficient” and “easy to do business with”, the vast majority believe so, with 89 percent of the Green Champions and 93 percent of the Technology Cautious.

However, at the same time, the majority of Movers & Shakers, who can be seen as the early adopters of new technologies and services, see utilities as “costly” and “bureaucratic”. This discerning subset of consumers is looking for innovation, and utilities have an opportunity to improve here.

When customers are looking to resolve a problem, providing excellent customer service is essential to maintaining customers’ satisfaction. We asked consumers to rank a group of service providers from best to worst on how they handle problem resolution. Utilities did very well, finishing second behind, once again, banks. Utilities were ranked higher than communications providers and even online retailers.


A major question that we sought to answer with this research is “Are consumers comparing utilities to service providers from other industries who have done a lot of digitization and modernizing of products and services?” The extent to which consumers have been affected by companies like Uber, Amazon and Netflix varies significantly by segmentation. While many consumers do prefer a high-tech experience, there is also a role for high-touch customer service – even for technologically savvy groups of consumers.

To learn more about the “Customer Experience & Expectations” report, download a free Executive Summary at www.smartgridcc.org.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Energy Analytics: Keeping up with Customer Expectations

In November, Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) took a close look at energy data analytics during its Energy Analytics: Keeping up with Customer Expectations webinar. Nathan Shannon, Deputy Director of SGCC, moderated the discussion that featured three energy industry experts: Michael Murray, Chief Technology Strategist, Mission:data Coalition; David Grant, SVP of Sales & Marketing, Tendril; and Cheryl Linder, Global Industry Strategy Leader, IBM.

To begin, Shannon explained the growing importance of data analytics in the energy industry and laid out common challenges with customer engagement. In SGCC's research, consumers say they want to be offered more choices and customized programs, and through the use of analytics, utilities are able to provide the kind of tailored programs that consumers actually want to participate in.

Analytics can help energy providers figure out how to grow with their customers, how to get their customers excited about new offerings and, ultimately, how to create a more personalized experience.

The Millennial generation: greater expectations

Michael Murray, head of technology for the nonprofit Mission:data, began with some key insights on the Millennial generation.

“It's hard to overstate how important the customer experience to Millennials. This is a generation that has, in large part, grown up with computers, and the younger section has grown up with smartphones. And these are consumers for whom your expectations are really, really high,” said Murray.

Murray relayed two striking statistics about Millennials. First, half of Millennials have an interest in installing solar panels on their home within the next five years, and customers interested in residential solar have a proven interest in a more data-driven experience around their energy usage.

Perhaps more remarkable is that nearly all Millennials (95 percent) stated that they would switch to a new energy provider if their current provider cannot provide the personalized experience that they want.

Two standards for data access

Murray switched his focus to some of the mechanics of how data access can be made available to consumers. There are two key methods of accessing energy data. The first is Green Button Connect My Data, an initiative prompted by a White House call-to-action, which typically provides information at 15 or 60-minute intervals to a utility and then, with customer permission, on to a third-party application.

The second method is through the home area network (HAN), which typically relies on a radio transmitter in the meter, providing real-time information to the customer.

The difference in method used determines the character of the analysis that can be done. Green Button data, for example, is normally provided hourly and only available with delay since the information is required to go back to the utility before then going on to a third-party application. Some of the real-time interactions in the home or workplace are not possible with backhaul data.

On the other hand, with real-time HAN data, a customer could, for example, receive an alert to their smartphone about something actively going on in their home. They could also investigate home energy usage by turning on different appliances and then checking a mobile app.

Murray closed with examples of innovation based on the two standards: the Center for Sustainable Energy’s Residential Electric Rate Analysis Tool that utilizes Green Button data and an enterprise-level tool that helps businesses gain understanding of their energy consumption at multiple locations by using both Green Button and real-time data.

Reimagining demand response with data analytics

In the second segment, David Grant, SVP of Sales & Marketing, Tendril, concentrated on the importance of data analytics in demand response and introduced attendees to Orchestrated Energy, cloud-based, consumer-oriented software that enables utilities to optimize system operation and customer comfort.

Grant categorized his work at Tendril into two sides of analytics: using backend analytics to optimize the grid and engaging customers through easy-to-use digital tools. Drawing on lessons learned from outside of the energy sector, Grant looked at the case study of Southwest Airlines and their rise to the top of the commercial airline industry. They accomplished this, Grant argued, due to their committed use of data analytics to improve processes and a persistent focus on the customer.

These same principles can be carried over to the energy industry to address challenges and opportunities that utilities are seeing today. For example, Orchestrated Energy software can predict how the outside temperature will affect the inside temperature of the home and do an intelligent pre-cooling of the home, shifting that load outside of the afternoon peak.

If the same home also has rooftop solar, then Orchestrated Energy is able to push as much of that load as possible into the solar curve – a major benefit to the grid. And as renewables become more distributed, there may be times when there's too much solar energy being put onto the grid, Grant explained. Tendril's software can use water heaters or electric vehicles as “solar sponges”, soaking up as much energy as possible under the solar curve.

Becoming customer centric through analytics

Cheryl Linder, Global Industry Strategy Leader for IBM's Energy and Utilities Industry, closed the discussion with an in-depth look at what it means to be a customer-centric utility and how this can be achieved through the use of data analytics.

According to Linder, there are several areas of focus required to achieve customer centricity: when customer insight and engagement capabilities allow you to ingest all sources of customer data and develop an in-depth, dynamic customer profile; utilize advanced analytics to predict behaviors; and operationalize actions on customer insights to acquire, grow and retain the best customers and improve services and participation.

"Whatever your customer engagement goals are," Linder stated, "there are key methods in analytics that you can use to guide your focus to becoming a customer-centric utility."

In closing, as utilities and other energy stakeholders seek to increase consumer engagement and develop a smarter, more modernized grid, it’s clear from our three panelists’ presentations that data analytics will play a fundamental role – both through optimization on the backend and via engaging, consumer-facing tools.

For further discussion on the role that analytics play, join us at our 7th annual 2017 Consumer Symposium on January 30 in San Diego. Data analytics will be woven into many sessions and will be a primary focus of the “Safely Unlocking the Value of Consumer Data” session. All attendees will receive a complimentary copy of the 2017 State of the Consumer Report, a new research study released annually at the event.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What Do Customers Want from Solar and Electric Vehicles? Surprising New Survey Results

By: Ronny Sandoval, Director, Grid Modernization, Environmental Defense Fund

Customer interest and adoption of clean energy technologies, including solar and electric vehicles (EVs), has increased significantly in recent years. People across the country have already taken steps to become more engaged in energy decisions that impact their homes, wallets, and communities. However, questions about the future of these developing technology options still remain. How do we ensure each customer is able to participate and benefit from making clean energy choices? How can this growth be sustained?  What do customers really think about these clean technologies today?

A new report from the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) attempts to address some of these questions and present a closer view of customer attitudes towards clean energy, electric vehicles, and the electric grid by going straight to the source. SGCC partnered with DNV GL, CenterPoint Energy, and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to survey over 1,500 people across the United States to see what customers really think about these technologies. Many of the findings are surprising and suggest that the decreasing costs of home solar and electric vehicles, coupled with consumer interests in clean energy and staying connected to the grid, present business cases for promotional and educational campaigns.

Key takeaways and opportunities for clean energy technology  
We encourage you to take a look at the full set of findings (and the webinar covering them), but the following are a few that stand out:
  1. Promotional and education opportunities: Less than 22 percent of customers believed they had a “fairly complete understanding” of solar and EV technologies. This lack of familiarity with the technologies and the benefits they can provide is one of the most significant barriers to customer adoption. Most customers have to search exhaustively for information and spend time, money, and effort just to engage with these energy options. This finding points to a significant opportunity to address the gap in understanding through greater promotion and customer education efforts. These efforts can and should include publicly-supported programs.

  2. Cost still matters: The upfront costs associated with these technologies continue to be a barrier to customer adoption. Demographic characteristics, such as homeownership and income level, still strongly correlate with whether customers engage with these energy options or not. Fortunately, capital costs associated with solar have significantly decreased over the last decade. What’s more, a broader range of EV options are now available to the mass market. In addition, “sharing economy” options such as community solar (where a community or multiple customers share ownership in the electricity produced from a solar power plant) and green power plans (in which customers buy clean energy from a market) are showing traction. These options allow customers with limited roof space or investment capital, or who rent instead of own their home, to participate in the clean energy economy.

  3. The electric grid still matters: Even though customers demonstrated a willingness to adopt and explore clean energy options, they still value being connected to the electric grid as a “back-up” power source and were willing to pay for it. In addition, some customers were more interested in electric vehicles when coupled with time-of-use electricity rates that are favorable to EV owners. This innovative pricing tool – which changes the price of electricity depending on the time of day and the demand on the electric grid – paired with EVs can help people save money when charging their vehicles and use electricity when it’s less costly or provided by clean, renewable sources.
Just the beginning
Not only can advances in clean energy technologies provide significant benefit for customers that directly adopt them, but they can also contribute to a modernized electric grid that benefits all. A modern grid can make the electric system more efficient, increase the penetration of renewables, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide cleaner air for all.

SGCC’s research goes a long way in providing a closer look into customer views around clean energy technologies. Energy leaders should look to these findings to not only recognize the opportunities to enhance the services they provide, but also to understand customer market trends. Both will help us better plan for a more modern, sustainable energy system.

This guest post is written by Ronny Sandoval, Director of EDF's national grid modernization efforts.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

AMI Playbook: Continuing to Deliver Customer Value with AMI

As AMI continues to optimize the modern grid, our September 15th webinar shared key takeaways of electric utilities throughout the country. Caitlyn Hewitt, Product Marketing Manager of Oracle-Opower, with Nathan Shannon of SGCC, presented how leading energy providers are leveraging software while connecting smart devices to the grid and the consumers who use it.

As Hewitt explained, the AMI deployments of today have changed significantly from the wave of smart meter deployments kicked off with the ARRA grants in 2009. In the past seven years, the industry has realized several AMI consumer benefits including the ability to offer consumers access to their data online, and better outage notification & communications. As of 2016 more than half of Americans have a smart meter with access to a range of valuable AMI-powered programs and services from demand response to dynamic rates and DERs.

As the smart grid begins to live up to its full potential, utilities can transform their communications by helping connect customers to a broad spectrum of services and capture the full benefit of their AMI investment.

On the webinar we learned six key takeaways to a successful and customer centric AMI rollout:

Takeaway #1: Build Customer Benefits into the Business Case
By focusing 70% of its benefits on the consumer, Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E), responding to Regulators in Maryland, revised their AMI rollout to become the first truly customer centric AMI business case. Ultimately, their customers received $2.50 worth of benefits for every dollar invested and BG&E was heralded for its AMI best practices program.

As stated in SGCC’s recent case study, BGE has been focused on customers from the start. The Maryland utility's strategy was to automatically enroll consumers into their Smart Energy Rewards program. Three years in, unsubscribe rates remain low and over one million customers have saved nearly $28 million.

Takeaway #2: Build Customer Buy-In with Early Education
Hewett explained that smart meter education usually begins post installation. But as exemplified by ConEd, you can’t engage customers too early. As part of the NY REV initiative, ConEd filed their AMI customer engagement rollout more than a year before the first smart meters were installed. The campaign familiarized New Yorkers with the benefits of REV: clean, affordable, resilient power.

Shannon shared that ComEd is also doing an excellent job “early educating” its customers. The Chicago based utility goes so far as to hand out information by sending ice cream trucks around its neighborhoods to entice people to enjoy the treats while educating them about their smart meter program.

Takeaway 3: Innovate Faster with Cloud-Based Data Management
As Legacy IT systems weren’t built to handle the amount of data smart meters create, utilities are turning to the cloud just as other industries have. Many utility technologies are taking to the Cloud such as meter data management (MDM), big data analytics, and distribution automation. Nearly 90% of utility executives say they’re using or plan to use the Cloud for MDM within the next three years.

Takeaway #4: Use AMI Data for Targeted Marketing
Hewitt explained that AMI data offers unprecedented visibility into the way people use energy but it takes powerful analytics to understand it. Some of us shut off lights when we leave for the day. Others crank up the AC mid-afternoon. How does a utility uncover energy usage patterns for hundreds of thousands of customers and put them to use for marketing? By combining detailed energy data along multiple dimensions such as time, geography, and weather to tease out key similarities and differences.

Shannon shared how SGCC has created a segmentation framework that takes into account customers’ attitudes about energy. SGCC found that learning customers’ preferences is another step utilities can take to make the most of AMI data.

In the case of ComEd, Oracle/Opower implemented its machine learning algorithms to discover distinct, recurring energy usage patterns identifying five “load curve archetypes for”. ComEd was able to determine which customers were better suited for DR programs. So, by pairing AMI insights with targeted marketing, utilities can drive program participation.

Takeaway #5: Design Rates that Balance Grid and Customer Needs
Once the meter data is flowing, new rate structures can be created that encourages customers to use energy when it’s less expensive and save energy when it’s not.

In the case of SMUD, Hewitt explained how dynamic rates weren’t just a tool to balance supply and demand. They were also a chance to raise customer satisfaction. Building on a DOE grant, SMUD began the SmartPricing Options Pilot Program during summers of 2012- 2013. Targeting a shift in peak summer demand from 4-7 PM, SMUD offered three separate pricing plans. After the 2-year pilot, SMUD cut peak demand on hot summer days by as much as 25% for the opt-in CPP plan. Overall, more than 95% of its customers were satisfied with their new rates.

Takeaway #6: Create a Better Experience with the New Data About Your Customers
In closing, Hewitt focused on how AMI data improves the customer experience by offering lasting benefits years after its rollout.

Citing Amazon and Uber, she explained how their use of cutting edge software – rather than phone and paper - has delivered deeper, more personalized online experiences.

Like Amazon’s data capabilities, AMI data can provide personalized, meaningful insights that increase customer satisfaction and self-service.

SGCC is here to bring you ideas and information on the latest breakthroughs in modern grid advancements. Please join us for our next event, Beyond the Grid: Connecting Tomorrow’s Consumers, on Monday January 30th 2017, in San Diego.