Friday, March 15, 2013

On the road: dispelling myths about the consumer

By Patty Durand

In this inaugural blog post, I’d like to declare two modest victories in the SGCC’s effort to get the word out on its work and the potential impact on consumers and utilities. 

In late February, I moderated one panel and contributed to another at the 4th annual IEEE Power & Energy Society’s conference on Innovative Smart Grid Technologies in Washington, D.C. And in late January, I led a presentation on the SGCC’s “2013 State of the Consumer” report at DistribuTECH, the power industry’s largest tradeshow, in San Diego.

In both cases, the SGCC’s findings were presented to a wide spectrum of stakeholders. Everyone at these events can be considered a consumer, of course; we also connected with utilities, technology vendors, regulators, academicians and journalists. In short, the SGCC is reaching the audiences that would most benefit from our research.

Simply being invited to moderate a panel on “Customer-Driven Smart Grid Performance Metrics” at the recent IEEE PES ISGT conference in Washington (and speaking on a second panel titled “Smart Grid Customer Education and Awareness”) shows that the power industry understands that technology exists to serve people.

Presenting SGCC research findings in various settings also keeps the conversation focused on the attitudes and perceptions of real consumers as measured by surveys, which serves to dispel persistent myths and misperceptions. In coming weeks, I’ll also have the opportunity to address GreenTech Media’s Networked Grid conference on March 21 and the Smart Grid Road Show on April 2.

In my recent presentations I found strong interest in four basic SGCC findings that cannot be repeated too often.

First, while it’s true that about half the U.S. population has only a vague notion of what “smart grid” means, we know from SGCC research that the more consumers know about the benefits of grid modernization, they more they like what they hear.

Second, my audiences often are hearing for the first time that customer segmentation by values and attitudes provides better insights for engagement than traditional demographics that rely on age, income, gender, etc.

Third, we are helping dispel the myth that consumers are only interested in the cheapest electricity to just keep the lights on. SGCC customer segmentation studies have found that significant numbers of consumers are motivated by environmental concerns, others by an interest in early adoption of energy management technologies, yet others are attracted by simple solutions and, yes, some are motivated by cost only or wish to be left alone.

Fourth, consumers like to feel empowered and they want choices. The notion that everyone just wants traditional, flat rates is false. When dynamic pricing is explained to consumers, SGCC research shows they are willing to try it; their motivations, of course, vary. 

Despite these promising findings about American consumers, I felt obligated to tell my audiences that if roughly half the U.S. population has not heard of the term “smart grid” or “smart meter,” then we as an industry (or a movement, if you will), face “heavy lifting” to raise awareness.

One of my fellow panelists at the IEEE PES ISGT, Caroline Winn, with San Diego Gas & Electric, provided grounds for optimism as she described her utility’s efforts to engage customers. SDG&E is combining customer segmentation with traditional demographics to understand their end users. The utility is moving customer service representatives into the role of “trusted advisors.” And its new mantra is to “get the right information to the right customer through the right channel at the right time.” SDG&E is introducing energy-related games into middle schools, initiating a new generation to the twin notions of efficiency and wise use. And SDG&E will soon offer customers “smart pricing plans” along with a year of their usage history to guide them to the plan that best suits them. A customer rewards program is in place.

In short, the SGCC’s research is slowly but surely replacing tired clichés and persistent myths about American consumers and their relationship to electric energy. I’ll bring you more insights from my public presentations and commentary on news events and market trends in future blogs. Stay tuned! (But turn your computer off when not in use…)

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