Thursday, February 23, 2017

Three Things We Learned at 2017 Consumer Symposium

Over 130 attendees gathered last month in advance of DistribuTECH for SGCC's Seventh Annual Consumer Symposium. The event featured the release of the “2017 State of the Consumer Report”, the presentation of the 2017 CLEAR Awards and many engaging sessions on the present and future of consumer engagement in smart energy. In case you couldn’t make it to this year’s Symposium (or if you'd just like to review your favorite sessions), many of the presentation materials are available for download here.

Looking back at the event, here are three key takeaways that we learned in San Diego:

1) Smart grid is foundational to the smart city

Jesse Berst, SGCC's founder and the current president of Smart Cities Council, joined us for the much-anticipated keynote address, and he did not disappoint.

Jesse provided an overview of smart cities and smart city projects that have been completed or are underway across the globe. This transformation in public health, transportation, water, public safety and energy is not a distant pipe dream; this is already well underway in many of the world's cities.

In his overview of the smart city, Jesse identified three key components: collect, communication and compute. Through a citywide network of censors, real-time data is collected that tells us the status of highways, buildings and other city infrastructure. Different parts of the smart city can communicate directly with each other, improving efficiency. And finally, the smart city computes for predictive analytics and real-time optimization.

The goal of the smart city is fairly simple: to make city residents happier, healthier and more productive while using fewer resources.

Jesse then focused on the role that the smart grid plays in the smart city; electricity along with telecommunications is one of the two pillars of a smart city. Smart city projects aim to improve livability, workability and sustainability of our urban areas, but without advancements in smart energy, the objectives of the smart city won’t be fully realized.

2) Customers of all income levels are interested in smart energy programs

Jeff Weiser, PayGo, discussing pre-pay program benefits
One of the most popular panels of the day was “Shattering the Myth of the Digital Divide” led by Georgia Watch’s Liz Coyle and featuring panelists from PayGo, Con Edison, Elevate Energy and Nest Labs. The session focused on how to customize outreach and tailor programs to low-income consumers and how to empower these consumers to engage in smart energy programs.

Low-income consumers are often left out of the conversation around smart energy, but this group of consumers may have the most to gain by participating in these programs. Energy bills are often the third-highest fixed bill each month for low-income Americans. Lowering energy bills can make a big difference in these consumers’ lives, and they are very interested in engaging in smart energy programs if utilities connect with them.

The panelists then provided some examples of engagement with low-income consumers. Chris Raup from Con Edison talked about the utility’s pilot program for making clean, renewable energy available to low-income customers at no cost. Consumers enrolled in the utility’s low-income bill assistance program can access solar energy and can see savings over $60 per year, according to early estimates.

Jeff Gleeson of Nest Labs discussed a program designed to get significantly discounted, refurbished smart thermostats into the homes of lower-income consumers, and Elle Corrado discussed Elevate Energy’s energy efficiency programs and community outreach programs in the Chicago area. Jeffrey Weiser, CEO of PayGo, talked about the company's innovative pre-pay solution that allows consumers to see their energy usage in real time. This economical solution allows consumers to set budgets and view their up-to-the-minute usage on their mobile app or through text or email notifications.

The main takeaway from this panel seemed to be the consensus among all participants that low-income consumers are very interested in participating smart energy programs if they are aware of them and if the outreach focuses on benefits (especially cost savings) they will see.

3) Sharing of consumer usage data is essential for smart grid 2.0

Some of the most vibrant debate of the day was during the “Safely Unlocking the Value of Consumer Data” panel led by Judith Schwarz, president of To the Point, and featuring participants from Illinois Citizens Utility Board, IBM, Opower and Green Button Alliance.

After recent high-profile data breaches in the health care and retail sectors, consumers are rightfully wary about how their energy data is being shared and stored. Protecting consumer data is important, and communicating a commitment to protecting consumer's privacy is critical as smart energy technology proliferates.

Most consumer-facing smart energy programs require either real-time or interval data to get the highest outcome from the program. According to Mission:Data, simply providing consumers with access to their energy data enables household energy savings averaging more than 12 percent.

Much of the discussion in this session focused on the Department of Energy's DataGuard program and how it can be considered a Good Housekeeping-type seal of approval for the energy data – an easy reference point for consumers to know their data is safe. DataGuard is an energy data privacy program that was designed and developed by industry stakeholders to provide consumers assurance that their energy data is being protected and treated responsibly. The voluntary program provides principles around the access, use and sharing of customer data.

Key tenets of the DataGuard program include, for example, customers being given prior notice about privacy-related policies and practices and customers having a degree of control over access to their own data.

In order for smart grid 2.0 to achieve its aims, consumer data will need to play an integral role. And for this to happen, consumers need to feel that their data is being safely handled by industry stakeholders.

Thank you to everyone that participated in this year’s Consumer Symposium. We hope you enjoyed this year’s event and discovered new insights and applicable takeaways on today’s smart energy consumers. If you have any feedback on the event, we would love to hear from you.

Finally, we have just announced the dates for our 2017 Members Meeting and Fall Workshop. Thanks to the gracious support of host, Austin Energy, we will be in Austin, Texas on Sept. 13-14. Mark your calendars! More information and registration will be available in the coming weeks at www.smartgridcc.org

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