Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Tracking the Evolution of Consumer Perspectives on the Smart Grid

Since 2011, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) has been investigating consumer perspectives on the smart grid, smart meters and related technologies. At the cornerstone of this investigation has been SGCC's flagship, longitudinal “Consumer Pulse and Market Segmentation” surveying. Recently, SGCC published the sixth wave of the “Consumer Pulse” surveying, the first since 2015. Reaching nearly 1,700 consumers across the U.S. via online surveys, “Consumer Pulse – Wave 6” revealed several interesting findings on the state of energy consumers today.

Consumer awareness of smart grid, smart meters is up

Going to back to the first wave of “Consumer Pulse” surveying conducted in 2011, consumer awareness of the smart grid and smart meters was very limited. That survey found that roughly half of consumers (51 percent) had never heard the term “smart grid”, and another quarter (24 percent) had heard the term but didn’t know much about it. Awareness levels for the term “smart meters” were similar, but marginally lower.

A lot has changed since then.

The recently released sixth wave of “Consumer Pulse” found that the overwhelming majority of American consumers have now heard of both the smart grid and smart meters, with 70 percent being aware of the former and 72 percent of the latter. Comparing these numbers to the fifth wave, released in 2015, we still see a considerable increase of 20 percentage points for smart meters and 23 percentage points for smart grid.

Looking at today’s energy landscape, we can glean a few possible reasons as to why we have reached these levels of consumer awareness. First, many Americans now have smart meters or other smart grid-related technology at their home. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that the predominant metering technology installed and operational throughout the U.S. is now smart meters.

In addition, states are taking action on modernizing their electric grids, and consumers may be seeing these tangible changes in their communities. According to a recent report from the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center, 37 states have already taken some type of action on grid modernization this year, including 19 states that have pending action on implementing demand response programs or deploying AMI, smart grid technologies, microgrids or energy storage.

Electric utilities themselves have, without a doubt, also been responsible for this increase in consumer awareness. Particularly in states that have adopted ambitious grid modernization goals, utilities have engaged in extensive education efforts throughout their customer bases. In Illinois, for example, ComEd and Ameren Illinois have both contributed significant funds to community-based smart grid education through the Illinois Science & Energy Innovation Foundation.

Finally, SGCC – with its 130+ members representing utilities, energy marketers, technology companies, consultancies, consumer advocates, nonprofits and others – has been providing consumers with objective, yet engaging educational materials on the smart grid, smart meters and related technologies for the last several years. These materials consist of FAQs, infographics, videos, blogs, fact sheets and other media designed to help consumers understand what’s coming next in energy and have been shared widely on social media and through members’ customer communications.

Consumers are clear about top three smart grid benefits

Since the beginning of our “Consumer Pulse” surveying, we have also consistently asked consumers about the potential benefits from the smart grid, and consumers have been very consistent in telling us what matters most to them.

Like SGCC’s “Consumer Voices” and “Consumer Pulse – Wave 5” research before it, the new report found again that the smart grid benefits valued most by consumers are:

1.       Saving money by using energy more efficiently,
2.       Preventing and reducing the length of outages, and
3.       Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by making it easier to connect renewable energy sources.

Even when looking at the perceived smart grid benefits from various attitudinal segments, these top three benefits remain largely the same in order of importance. While more green-friendly consumers value making it easier to connect renewables as slightly higher than some other segments, this group still ranks “saving money” and “preventing outages” as the top two benefits derived from the smart grid.

Interestingly, the attitudinal segment that we call “Status Quo” – more likely to be, but not necessarily, retired Baby Boomers living in rural communities who belong to lower-income brackets – ranked “making it easier to connect renewables” as the second most important smart grid benefit at just one percentage point below saving money (66 to 65 percent, respectively).

This segment is characterized as having low engagement with their utility, and their general attitude toward their utility is best summed up as “we’re okay; you can leave us alone.” Despite this, it’s interesting to note that they largely value the importance of connecting renewables to the grid – even slightly more so than reducing outages and nearly the same as saving money.

Earlier this year, SGCC released its communications toolkit, “Effective Communication with Consumers on the Smart Grid Value Proposition,” which was based on a 2016 consumer survey and which also found that consumers overwhelmingly value the financial and reliability benefits of the smart grid. This toolkit provides industry stakeholders with insights on how to best relay these benefits to consumers and sample messaging and banner ads to use in their communications. SGCC has made this toolkit available to download at no cost to all.

Conclusion

For years, SGCC and the energy industry at large have been working to move the needle on consumer awareness of the smart grid and smart meters, and according to the findings of the recent wave of “Consumer Pulse”, it would seem that these collective efforts have paid off. This rise in awareness is good news for industry stakeholders as a more aware consumer base may be easier to engage and may also be more interested in products and services dependent on the smart grid.

As we move into a new era for utility-customer relationships, the “Consumer Pulse – Wave 6” study provides insights for industry stakeholders not just on consumer awareness of the smart grid and perceived benefits of the smart grid, but on consumers’ satisfaction with their utility, consumer support for their electricity provider’s clean energy expansion, consumers’ preferred choice of electricity provider and much more.


An Executive Summary of the report is publicly available here, and SGCC members can download the full, 32-page report with their unique login at www.smartgridcc.org

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