Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Talking to consumers about energy

By Patty Durand, Executive Director, Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative

Many of us spend our days talking to others who inhabit the same professional sphere and sometimes struggle to explain to those outside our field just what’s so important about what we do.  The power industry, in particular, suffers from this phenomenon, which is in partly why the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative was established – to help power utilities engage and communicate better with consumers.  And to help everyone talk to each other – technology vendors, consumer advocates, and consumers, about the changes taking place.

In the weeks ahead I’ll be working to take the issues associated with grid modernization – smart metering, dynamic pricing, utility capital investment, consumer choices around utility programs and home technologies – to a broader audience of laypersons. As approached this challenge I want to share my thinking around “how to talk to consumers.”

I welcome feedback from anyone with something practical to add to the following thoughts.

First, assume no specialized knowledge on the part of the consumer. Busy lives dominated by family needs, work and the pace of modern life often means that electricity is taken for granted. Flip a switch and it’s there. Our 20th century success in making electricity convenient, more or less reliable and affordable means that grabbing attention – just getting electricity to be properly valued – is a challenge. We’ve got to speak to consumers in terms they care about. In order to do that you have to ask questions or know something about them.

Even so, our research shows that nearly everyone cares about outages. For instance, it sometimes seems as if half of Americans know that when their power goes out they need to call the utility. The other half may not know this and can’t believe that’s the case when you point it out. Telling both sides about the outage detection abilities of smart meters might take different forms, but we might begin by asking whether they’ve been inconvenienced by an outage, and for how long.

Second, that brings us to “pain points.” If your audience is in a state along the Eastern Seaboard, ask how they were affected by Hurricane Sandy. Brace yourself! You might get a relieved “we were lucky, the outage only lasted a few hours.” But you might get an epic tale of woe from someone whose community lost power for a couple weeks. What, exactly, did they suffer through? Loss of life? Cold nights? Hot days? Spoiled food? Lack of information? Unable to get to work or back home? If a recent outage in a suburb of, say, Omaha, only cut power for an afternoon, did that impact the ability to charge a smartphone, make an appointment on time? Those pain points can frame your access to an engaging conversation.

Third, know your audience and, if necessary, ask questions to determine their knowledge. Then you can properly gauge the level of information they might find useful. I hear many people in the power industry who think they know what their consumers want or need, in terms of information or utility programs. But SGCC research, to cite one of my favorite examples, has often shown conventional wisdom to be flawed. Don’t assume you know your audience until you’ve actually studied them through surveys or polls, examined the research out there, or met with them via focus groups. If you don’t really know your audience/consumers there is a good chance your assumptions will be wrong.

Fourth, I think it’s good to connect the dots for people. Ask about and understand their pain points and ordinary, individual concerns about electricity’s reliability, affordability and so forth. But it’s always good to relate individual concerns to the large societal issues to provide context and sometimes that aha! moment. For instance, those smart meters they’ve vaguely heard about. Sure, they help the utility detect when power is out at their house. But do they know that advanced metering systems help utilities operate more efficiently and, therefore, with a lower environmental footprint?  That they will be empowered to manage their electricity budget and see their usage details if they want to?

Finally, right now, we know that a handful of motivations describe the predominant attitude of the broad swath of consumers. Again, a question or two will reveal whether a person is most concerned about saving money, preserving the environment, eager to adopt new technology or just wanting simplicity. That helps us understand how to craft relevant, intriguing and impactful messages that can engage and empower consumers as their utilities and even third parties offer them new programs and technologies.

Just a few thoughts. Let me know yours. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

SGCC’s new pricing fact sheet: serving both sides of the meter

By Patty Durand, Executive Director, SGCC

As many of you know, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative’s members and staff work hard to serve “both sides of the meter.” That is, the SGCC is helping power utilities engage their customers in new and dynamic ways, while providing consumers with information to understand how they can interact with the new landscape of a digital electrical grid.

The predominant model of monopoly utilities serving captive customers underlies a societal compact in which the consumer enjoys safe, reliable, affordable power. This social compact includes financial and environmental constraints on their utility’s ability to deliver that service.

For example, as utilities strive to meet peak power demands, particularly on hot summer afternoons, they can now offer customers ways to help without the utility investing money in inefficient, peak-only power plants. How? By encouraging consumers to enroll in dynamic pricing plans, which provide customers with incentives to use energy wisely and efficiently as well as minimizing their power demands at the peak of the day.

To aid both utilities and their customers in this evolving relationship, the SGCC has now made available its new power pricing fact sheet,
“Become a Smart Power Consumer.” This is the fifth in our consumer education series that also produced fact sheets on myth-busting, data privacy, consumer benefits and radio frequency-related science.

This new fact sheet on pricing conveys, in simple graphics and straightforward prose, how electricity is generated, transmitted and distributed and why the cost of doing so varies. Most of us are accustomed to paying a flat rate regardless of the timing or amount of electricity we use. This fact sheet helps everyone learn more sophisticated ways that our digital age allows for harnessing electricity in ways that save money, avoid waste, and enjoy the same comfort.

We are in a transitional phase in which re-examining that societal compact means closer cooperation between a utility and its customers. I’m confident that Americans who learned telephone pricing plans based on network capacity can shift to home energy pricing based on timing, quantity and cost. It’s no different.

Our new fact sheet is designed to help utilities explain to their customers the basic concepts of dynamic pricing, while providing those customers with the exact same information to help them make informed choices. The beauty of this approach is transparency, which promotes open dialogue and trust on both sides of the meter.

Please share the pricing fact sheet with colleagues, family and friends. Your utility may already offer several pricing plans and choices or will do so

Separately, I’ll be participating in a
U.S. Department of Energy workshop in Golden, Colo., on May 21, to help finalize the DOE’s Customer Engagement Guide. The DOE has asked the SGCC to own this document going forward. (Click on the link – we need more utilities to attend.) And I’ll deliver a keynote address at the Muni Smart Grid Summit on June 3 on “Successful Consumer Engagement Practices & Strategies for Utilities About to Deploy Smart Meters,” based on our recent report, “Smart Grid Customer Engagement Success Stories.”

I’d also like to call your attention to the pending launch of SGCC’s new, consumer-facing website, coming this summer. It will provide a destination for consumers who want to learn more about home energy use and grid modernization. We’re in the midst of designing its look and feel. The navigation should serve the public based on their motivations and needs. Looking to save money on your utility bill? We’ll provide best practices. Do you care about environmental sustainability or climate change? We’ll explain how a smarter grid addresses those issues. I am most excited about a portal for consumers to upload their own You Tube videos for testimonials on what they like about their utility’s programs or pricing plans or anything related to a smarter grid. We want to provide a place for consumers to see what others think who are excited about the positive aspects of grid modernization.

In short, the SGCC is on a roll. I look forward to sharing more news of our progress with you soon.

Friday, May 3, 2013

SGCC and DOE working to complete Customer Engagement Guide

By Patty Durand, Executive Director, SGCC

I’m delighted to announce that the U.S. Department of Energy is holding a final in-person workshop to complete its draft of the
Smart Grid Customer Engagement Guide, which should be finalized in the weeks that follow the May 21 meeting in Golden, Colo.

Please note that
registration for the workshop closes on May 14. The power industry, its customers (that’s all of us) and the nation will benefit from having the widest possible expert input into the document.

As the DOE notes: “The success of the smart grid will depend in part on consumers taking a more proactive role in managing their energy use. A best practices guide will provide utilities with successful approaches to engaging customers along with parameters and guidance for measuring the effectiveness of customer engagement programs, filling a real need of utilities and regulators alike.”

I’m urging smart grid stakeholders to send representatives to the workshop to share their real-world experiences to make the Engagement Guide as practical and useful as possible to the widest swath of utilities and their customers, here and, potentially, abroad. After all, the draft document is titled, “Voices of Experience.” Speak up and share your knowledge!

We at the SGCC are in full support of the initiative and the DOE has asked us to take ownership of the document once the Engagement Guide has been published. This is welcome recognition that we have earned a high degree of credibility in our work of three-plus years through our deep and diverse membership, published research and outreach to the power industry’s array of stakeholders. In 36+ months, the SGCC, driven by its members and staff, has become the premier organization linking those stakeholders in a common cause.

For all our members and supporters, you should be proud. This is a significant milestone in the SGCC’s mission “to be the trusted source representing consumers, advocates, utilities and technology providers in order to advance the adoption of a reliable, efficient and secure smart grid and ensure long-lasting sustainable benefits to consumers.”

It’s important to understand that the Engagement Guide has been developed by and for the power industry to help individual utilities to inform and engage their customers about home energy management in an era of grid modernization. The May 21 workshop will complete a process that’s been underway since 2011. The DOE has facilitated this effort for obvious reasons: the American people need to understand the changes in power delivery to their homes involving meters, pricing, reliability, privacy and other issues, and grid modernization’s connection to the nation’s security and economic health. 

Participants in the one-day workshop in Golden will receive the current draft of the Engagement Guide and be asked to assist by adding their real-world experience to craft the most useful document for their power industry peers. The workshop format will include small group discussions on specific sections of the guide followed by “report outs” to the larger group. I look forward to participating in the process and hope you’ll join me.

The goal is to release the guide at the
National Town Meeting on Demand Response and Smart Grid, July 9-11 in Washington, D.C. The SGCC will also introduce the Engagement Guide to its members at its annual members’ event in September, date to be announced.

Whether you’ve been directly involved or not, when you see the Engagement Guide, you’ll instantly recognize its value. It provides practical, how-to direction on organizing and implementing a utility-based customer outreach program that can be tailored to specific circumstances, based on solid research and real-world examples of successful practices.

Let me close by saying how excited I am that this much-needed resource for the power industry and its hundreds of millions of customers is close at hand. Please join us on May 21, if you can.