Friday, February 14, 2014

The way to your consumers’ heart

By Patty Durand, SGCC Executive Director

“Moving the needle” on national, consumer perceptions of smart grid-related issues is not an easy task. We know this: after three years of consumer research, the SGCC’s Consumer Pulse Research Program-Wave 4, released November 2013, found little change in consumer awareness about the terms smart grid or smart meter from previous surveys.

I view this as both good news and bad news. Good news in that the anti-smart meter groups have not been effective at persuading mainstream Americans to fear smart meters. And considering the relentless barrage of fear-mongering by a variety of self-appointed groups and individuals disparaging smart grid’s safety and effectiveness, including a “global film release” last September called “Take Back Your Power” it is possible to see the lack of needle movement as a victory: the negativistas haven’t significantly influenced the public.

The bad news is that our efforts haven’t made headway either, and awareness remains low. And so we proceed with SGCC sponsored efforts to educate and raise awareness of and support for grid modernization.

And we have grounds for optimism. If we glance at the latest study’s results, we continue to see positive signs.  Our latest consumer survey found that among those familiar with the terms ‘smart grid’ or ‘smart meters’, more than half have favorable feelings and another 30% are neutral. The consumer segment dubbed “Do-it-yourself (DIY) and Save” has the highest proportion of respondents who report satisfaction with their smart meter. Here is evidence that awareness and knowledge of the value proposition produces a positive attitude upon which we can build.

Furthermore, we found that all consumer segments maintain high interest – with Concerned Greens leading the way – in incentive and rebate programs that encourage switching to more energy efficient products. Though only 20 percent of consumers currently have a programmable thermostat in their home, of those who do not, 70 percent are interested in purchasing one. Most exciting to me is that modest bill increases to encourage alternative energy sources and improved grid reliability are supported by a majority of respondents. I did not expect that.

My own takeaway is that when consumers are knowledgeable about energy management tools such as smart meters and smart thermostats, they are likely to use those tools. Consumers “get” energy efficiency (EE) and, while some see its effect only on their own pocketbook, some also “get” the greater environmental benefits to society. This distinction is important because many utility programs in EE and demand response (DR) requires only a subset of customers to be effective.

The alternative is massive capital investment in increased capacity, time-consuming and costly siting efforts for new power plants and greater pollution from increased fossil fuel production. Compared to that scenario, winning the hearts and minds of consumers looks like an increasingly wise choice, and do-able. In my view, the glass remains half full, even if the proverbial needle has not moved on a national level.

For now, we continue to offer tools to build consumer interest (is love too much to ask?) in the smart grid. If you are not familiar with the consumer-facing Web resource “What is Smart Grid?” we launched last summer, please click on the link. Our Consumer Information Kit provides answers to the question of consumer value, as well as the facts regarding controversial topics such as data privacy and smart meter safety. The guidebook, Smart Grid Consumer Engagement Success Stories, outlines winning utility programs.

And finally, yesterday we held a webinar titled ‘The Way to Your Consumers’ Heart’, where we discussed how to identify what consumers care about and integrate those values into customer segmentation, and then how to take action. The report is available to members and can be downloaded here. In addition, a video recording of the webinar is posted here. We enjoyed hearing from experts at Duke Energy and Arizona Public Service on this topic.

We know that significant portions of various consumer segments are aware of and favorable towards actions that will provide for a clean energy mix with positive impacts on costs and environmental concerns. That is a position of strength upon which we can build.