Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Research-based facts over conventional wisdom

By Patty Durand, Executive Director, SGCC

As I travel around the country presenting the SGCC’s research findings, I’m running into other presenters who say things like, “All people want is to flick a switch and get power. That’s all they care about.” Or: “All people want is cheap electricity. They don’t care about the details.”

These dubious statements often are backed up by man-in-the-street video interviews in which the interviewer exposes the interviewees’ ignorance on smart grid concepts and terms, as if that were evidence of anything.

This frustrates me because those statements have no basis in fact and the ludicrous videos establish nothing, other than that power utilities have only just begun to educate their customers.

At best, these blanket statements are the product of “conventional wisdom,” an unexamined train of thought without supporting evidence. The speaker is simply imposing his or her own thinking on an issue deserving of careful analysis. At worst, these are self-serving statements designed to reach a foregone conclusion.

In contrast, the SGCC’s research reflects that the supposedly homogenous group, “people,” is composed of five distinct consumer segments, each with their own motivations and aspirations. Two of the five segments – Traditionals and Easy Street –prefer flat rates and want to pay their bill and be done with it, though they comprise a minority of the U.S. general population at 30%.

The other three segments – Concerned Greens, Young America, and Do-it-yourself & Save – show avid interest in energy issues. Several of these segments show interest in adopting energy practices that align with their personal outlooks.  And their numbers comprise 70% of the U.S. general population.

As it turns out, the American consumer is largely aware of the implications of electricity generation and consumption as they relate to the issues of our time. They may not yet understand the concepts, terminology or technical aspects of power or “smart grid,” and they cannot define what a kilowatt hour is, but they “get” the issues at stake. And many care a great deal.

So, SGCC research has exposed conventional wisdom for what it is: lazy projections of the speaker’s thinking that fall apart in light of bona fide research.

Even more insidious than lumping “people” into one homogenous group and dismissing their interest in understanding the implications of today’s grid is the implicit assumption that people don’t care and/or don’t wish to be educated. Another of the SGCC’s research-based findings is that there’s significant consumer interest, almost across the board, in learning about electricity provision and its implications. Environmental concerns are completely mainstream today, as are concerns about the nation’s energy posture.

Of course, consumers are concerned about the cost of electricity and its affordability. The recession we are just emerging from underscored that while electricity remains relatively inexpensive in this country, the electric bill – and the factors that govern it – is a significant expense for many. But to pretend that cheap, reliable electricity is everyone’s only concern is a fallacy.

As you know, the SGCC’s mission is to understand consumers’ motivations and aspirations in order to assist in educating them about their electricity use and the implications of various practices. Let’s begin by respecting the consumer.

If “conventional wisdom” has any basis in fact, that’s because consumers have for a century been treated as passive ratepayers. Utilities themselves acknowledge that their success in providing safe, affordable, reliable electricity has made it challenging to educate their customers now that grid modernization is underway and a utility-customer relationship is beneficial to both parties.

So, let’s supplant the unexamined mantras of conventional wisdom with actual research and use the latter as the basis for educating consumers on what they need to know to be savvy customers. At the very least, consumers will need to “get it” in order to support the tens of billions of dollars in grid improvements needed to keep their electricity reliable and affordable and enable them and the U.S. in general to remain competitive in the 21st century.  And the best case is an engaged and savvy consumer who works in partnership with their utility to manage their costs, address their values related to energy, and who enjoys the services and programs the utility has to offer. 

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