Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Engagement moves the needle, at least in webinar poll

By Patty Durand, SGCC Executive Director

We tried an interesting experiment last week on our Thought Leadership webinar, “Are Consumers Willing to Pay the Cost?” (Meaning, will they pay for a smarter grid?).  Attendees were polled as the webinar began, and they answered: “It depends” (50 percent), “No” (44 percent) and “Yes” (6 percent). I couldn’t help wonder, as you might, at the reasons for such apparent pessimism.

The same poll, taken after presentations by Chris King, global chief regulatory officer, Siemens Smart Grid Services, and Wilson Gonzalez, senior energy policy advisor, Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, reflected that the proverbial needle had moved. The results at the end of the webinar: “It depends” (43 percent), “No” (30 percent) and “Yes” (26 percent).

Though this wasn’t a scientific poll with a valid sample size, I was impressed by the degree to which minds had changed in a one-hour session. Call me biased, but I found grounds for optimism in the results.  Here’s my thinking:

The webinar attendees admittedly were a self-selecting group apparently interested in learning more about the question in the webinar title. Yet the only thing that changed between the two pollings was the audience’s fresh awareness of smart grid value propositions and results from pilot programs for dynamic pricing across the country delivered by our speakers. Customer value was a theme.

My takeaway: an interested audience, presumably with some background on the issue, found the value propositions convincing. And if the audience did, they also felt other consumers will as well.  The two value propositions that I found worthy of communicating is that 1) the payback on smart grid investments is considerably higher than the initial investment, and 2) individual consumers involved in dynamic pricing programs had managed to save money.

We also heard that only a fraction of the customer base is needed to reduce peak energy use in order to provide system-wide benefits – benefits that accrue to all customers.  I’m encouraged, that our common mission to engage and inform will pay dividends and that the way forward is rather straightforward, if not easy. After all, SGCC research has demonstrated that when consumers are given clear and concise explanations of grid modernization and its impacts on reliability, costs and environmental benefits, they want to learn more. And, it would seem from our webinar’s impact, that learning more means understanding and embracing the value propositions offered by grid modernization.

After the webinar, Chris told me that, in his view, the large proportion of attendees that responded “It depends” on consumer support for smart grid had based their view on the cost-benefit analysis. The change in sentiment by the end of the webinar seemed to reflect that consumer support is contingent on a positive analysis of costs and benefits. Once a net positive benefit is clearly explained, minds change.   

Personally, I found the fact that meaningful peak load reduction—that is, at a level that could preclude or defer the need for peaker power plants on some systems – is possible with just a fraction of the customer base is very encouraging. I had previously heard as little as 20 or 30 percent of the customer base needed to engage, but last week Chris report that as little as 10 percent of the customer base can make a difference. Our task in changing utilities’ load shape is not as monumental as I once thought.

All of these points are timely and may soon have further corroboration. The SGCC’s Wave IV research, now underway with results due in October, will focus on consumer interest in and willingness to pay for various smart grid-related programs and technologies. The data we obtain this fall will indeed be scientifically valid and should provide a baseline by which to gauge whether our collective efforts are moving the needle.

The prospects look positive for garnering public support for grid modernization and its positive impacts on reliability, grid efficiencies and environmental quality – not to mention the nation’s productivity and economic competitiveness.

I’d like to publicly thank Chris King and Wilson Gonzalez for their informative presentations. Chris serves on the SGCC board and Wilson has advised us on our research efforts. Also, the efforts of our own SGCC staffer, Greg Schwartz, continue to make our Thought Leadership series a success.    

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