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. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Tracking the Evolution of Consumer Perspectives on the Smart Grid

Since 2011, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) has been investigating consumer perspectives on the smart grid, smart meters and related technologies. At the cornerstone of this investigation has been SGCC's flagship, longitudinal “Consumer Pulse and Market Segmentation” surveying. Recently, SGCC published the sixth wave of the “Consumer Pulse” surveying, the first since 2015. Reaching nearly 1,700 consumers across the U.S. via online surveys, “Consumer Pulse – Wave 6” revealed several interesting findings on the state of energy consumers today.

Consumer awareness of smart grid, smart meters is up

Going to back to the first wave of “Consumer Pulse” surveying conducted in 2011, consumer awareness of the smart grid and smart meters was very limited. That survey found that roughly half of consumers (51 percent) had never heard the term “smart grid”, and another quarter (24 percent) had heard the term but didn’t know much about it. Awareness levels for the term “smart meters” were similar, but marginally lower.

A lot has changed since then.

The recently released sixth wave of “Consumer Pulse” found that the overwhelming majority of American consumers have now heard of both the smart grid and smart meters, with 70 percent being aware of the former and 72 percent of the latter. Comparing these numbers to the fifth wave, released in 2015, we still see a considerable increase of 20 percentage points for smart meters and 23 percentage points for smart grid.

Looking at today’s energy landscape, we can glean a few possible reasons as to why we have reached these levels of consumer awareness. First, many Americans now have smart meters or other smart grid-related technology at their home. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that the predominant metering technology installed and operational throughout the U.S. is now smart meters.

In addition, states are taking action on modernizing their electric grids, and consumers may be seeing these tangible changes in their communities. According to a recent report from the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center, 37 states have already taken some type of action on grid modernization this year, including 19 states that have pending action on implementing demand response programs or deploying AMI, smart grid technologies, microgrids or energy storage.

Electric utilities themselves have, without a doubt, also been responsible for this increase in consumer awareness. Particularly in states that have adopted ambitious grid modernization goals, utilities have engaged in extensive education efforts throughout their customer bases. In Illinois, for example, ComEd and Ameren Illinois have both contributed significant funds to community-based smart grid education through the Illinois Science & Energy Innovation Foundation.

Finally, SGCC – with its 130+ members representing utilities, energy marketers, technology companies, consultancies, consumer advocates, nonprofits and others – has been providing consumers with objective, yet engaging educational materials on the smart grid, smart meters and related technologies for the last several years. These materials consist of FAQs, infographics, videos, blogs, fact sheets and other media designed to help consumers understand what’s coming next in energy and have been shared widely on social media and through members’ customer communications.

Consumers are clear about top three smart grid benefits

Since the beginning of our “Consumer Pulse” surveying, we have also consistently asked consumers about the potential benefits from the smart grid, and consumers have been very consistent in telling us what matters most to them.

Like SGCC’s “Consumer Voices” and “Consumer Pulse – Wave 5” research before it, the new report found again that the smart grid benefits valued most by consumers are:

1.       Saving money by using energy more efficiently,
2.       Preventing and reducing the length of outages, and
3.       Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by making it easier to connect renewable energy sources.

Even when looking at the perceived smart grid benefits from various attitudinal segments, these top three benefits remain largely the same in order of importance. While more green-friendly consumers value making it easier to connect renewables as slightly higher than some other segments, this group still ranks “saving money” and “preventing outages” as the top two benefits derived from the smart grid.

Interestingly, the attitudinal segment that we call “Status Quo” – more likely to be, but not necessarily, retired Baby Boomers living in rural communities who belong to lower-income brackets – ranked “making it easier to connect renewables” as the second most important smart grid benefit at just one percentage point below saving money (66 to 65 percent, respectively).

This segment is characterized as having low engagement with their utility, and their general attitude toward their utility is best summed up as “we’re okay; you can leave us alone.” Despite this, it’s interesting to note that they largely value the importance of connecting renewables to the grid – even slightly more so than reducing outages and nearly the same as saving money.

Earlier this year, SGCC released its communications toolkit, “Effective Communication with Consumers on the Smart Grid Value Proposition,” which was based on a 2016 consumer survey and which also found that consumers overwhelmingly value the financial and reliability benefits of the smart grid. This toolkit provides industry stakeholders with insights on how to best relay these benefits to consumers and sample messaging and banner ads to use in their communications. SGCC has made this toolkit available to download at no cost to all.

Conclusion

For years, SGCC and the energy industry at large have been working to move the needle on consumer awareness of the smart grid and smart meters, and according to the findings of the recent wave of “Consumer Pulse”, it would seem that these collective efforts have paid off. This rise in awareness is good news for industry stakeholders as a more aware consumer base may be easier to engage and may also be more interested in products and services dependent on the smart grid.

As we move into a new era for utility-customer relationships, the “Consumer Pulse – Wave 6” study provides insights for industry stakeholders not just on consumer awareness of the smart grid and perceived benefits of the smart grid, but on consumers’ satisfaction with their utility, consumer support for their electricity provider’s clean energy expansion, consumers’ preferred choice of electricity provider and much more.


An Executive Summary of the report is publicly available here, and SGCC members can download the full, 32-page report with their unique login at www.smartgridcc.org

Monday, May 8, 2017

Utility Innovation and Customer Engagement Successes

The landscape for customer engagement for energy providers has changed quickly over the last few years. Younger generations with different sets of values are emerging as increasingly important target demographics. The proliferation of smartphones, social media and mobile apps is creating new channels where some customers expect interaction. And customers’ experiences with companies like Amazon, Verizon and Lyft are influencing these customers’ expectations for their relationship with their electric provider.

In this new world of evolving expectations and emerging innovation, members of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative have led the way in demonstrating how to effectively reach and engage consumers. Let's take a look at how three SGCC members have maximized customer engagement around residential solar, demand response/smart thermostats and microgrids, respectively.

Get on board the Solar Express in Snohomish County

Located just north of Seattle, Snohomish County is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. It's also notable for being home to one of the nation's most innovative municipal utilities.

Snohomish County Public Utilities District (SnoPUD), the second largest publicly owned utility in Washington, serves over 341,000 electric customers throughout a service territory that covers more than 2,200 square miles. Led by progressive leadership that has for years emphasized the importance of adapting to climate change, SnoPUD launched its Solar Express program back in 2009 to drive the adoption of rooftop solar.

To get the program off the ground, SnoPUD relied on several aspects, including cash incentives, local media outreach, community engagement and education.

For qualifying Solar Express customers, the utility initially offered up to $2,500 in cash incentives for residential customers that installed their solar system via a SnoPUD-approved solar contractor and had their installed system inspected by the utility. In addition to the upfront financial incentive, customers were also benefitted by positive Washington State policies and programs around net metering and residential renewable energy production.

The impetus of the Solar Express program was the high consumer demand in Snohomish County, and the utility capitalized on this interest to develop a robust community outreach program that included targeted letters, printed inserts, community meetings, solar fairs and solar home tours. Due to the high interest in the local market, it was easy to attract local media attention to the program, and over the years, cultivating social media discussion and word-of-mouth testimonials has been crucial for sustaining interest in the program.

SnoPUD also supported community-led, grassroots efforts to promote installations, whereby neighbors could get together, identify an ideal solar installer and obtain lower cost for multiple installations. Furthermore, the utility partnered with area schools and local businesses to install solar demonstration projects where the community could learn directly about solar energy.

Over the years, the Solar Express program has been a shining success. The first megawatt (MW) of solar was installed in three years, but the second MW came less than 18 months later. The third MW was added less than a year after that.

Today, the program is at nine MW of installed solar, and system costs are down significantly. While some of the financial incentives are going away after this summer, the utility will still offer an education and information program for customers interested in solar energy.

Demand response, BYOT and holiday promotions at CPS Energy

Down in San Antonio, Texas, another SGCC member, CPS Energy, has seen impressive growth and high customer satisfaction with its Bring Your Own Thermostat (BYOT) program.

With nearly 800,000 electric customers, CPS Energy is the largest municipal utility in the U.S. and is also a leader in encouraging energy efficiency and reduction in their community. Through the Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan, CPS Energy aims to reduce community demand for electricity by 771 MW by 2020 – roughly the same output of a small-ish power plant.

In addition to energy efficiency and solar, CPS Energy’s demand response program has been a key part of achieving this goal, and to effectively promote demand response to their customer base, CPS Energy developed a wide-ranging outreach and education program that included newsletters, paid advertisements, partner outreach emails, local TV spots, in-store promotions and much more.

The three main concepts driving their outreach were:

1) Create value for customers.
2) Meet customers where they are and when the best deals are available.
3) Eliminate cost barriers.

The program outreach also was strategically aligned with the holiday season, and in particular, Black Friday, a day when consumers are already expecting to spend to get significant deals from retailers. To increase adoption of their BYOT program, CPS Energy increased their smart thermostat rebate from $89 to $150, so customers could go out and buy a Nest thermostat for just $19 on Black Friday.

From year one, the program was a massive success. With a first year goal of 1,000 new customers, CPS Energy nearly doubled that figure. Thanks in part to helpful partners like The Home Depot who allowed CPS Energy to promote BYOT in store during the holidays, the program grew by 40 percent in six weeks.

And after the program was over, CPS Energy expected fewer enrollments; however, due to community awareness and word of mouth, post-event enrollments doubled.

In year two, CPS Energy offered the same financial incentives to consumers but pursued a different angle on marketing the program. Capitalizing on the heightened community awareness from the prior year, CPS Energy backed off some of the media spend but increased their presence on social media. Despite the drastically decreased marketing budget, CPS Energy added about 3,300 new customers, and the program became increasingly cost effective for them.

In the past two years, the San Antonio community has embraced CPS Energy’s BYOT program, as the program has quadrupled in that time. The BYOT program meets customers’ needs by allowing them to conveniently select their own device and save money, yet it remains the most cost-effective program CPS Energy’s demand response program.

Analyzing the results of community microgrid projects

Microgrid projects are being deployed at an increasing rate across the country, as they offer financial, resiliency and other benefits in many applications. SGCC member Energetics, a Columbia, Maryland-based management and engineering consulting firm, has extensive experience working with partners on microgrid projects.

While most of the microgrids that have been deployed are single-customer projects, like military bases, data centers, hospitals and universities, a major next step in this area is the development of community microgrids, which offer a more complicated set of requirements in the implementation and operation. With multiple customers, meters and even connection points with the grid, there's a higher level of coordination required in this emerging model that usually requires utility involvement from the beginning.

Prompted by the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, the State of New York has been funding and conducting feasibility studies on the application of community microgrids that could restore power more quickly in the event of another superstorm or similar scenario. Over 80 projects were submitted in the first round for communities across the state, including Brooklyn, The Bronx, Syracuse and Yonkers, that were assessed for their technical feasibility, environmental suitability and also, importantly, the value proposition to the community.

Collectively, these 83 feasibility studies represent the world's largest body of literature on community microgrid design. Prior to this initiative by New York State, there was very little information globally on designing community microgrids and around the policy implications and the technical hurdles that need to be overcome.

After the initial studies were collected, Energetics was tasked with data mining the studies to determine best practices and lessons learned, especially around community involvement and customer concerns. In most of the communities, engagement in the process of designing a local microgrid was high, and community members came together as teams to determine the specific concerns of the community, most often environmental issues and the cost of residential customer electricity rates.

While microgrids, particularly multiple-customer microgrids, are still a burgeoning part of grid modernization, the New York State program has developed a solid base of information that other projects can utilize going forward.


To learn more about utility innovation and customer engagement successes, SGCC members and member prospects are invited to attend the 2017 Members Meeting & Fall Workshop in Austin, Texas on Sept. 13-14. The two-day event will feature sessions on the connected home, millennials, distributed energy resources, electric vehicles and more.