12 Sep 2011

Engaging consumers about smart grid apps: face-to-face better than Facebook

Written by Jim Pierobon

From the successes, hiccups and outright failures of utilities trying to deploy smart grid applications, those worth emulating are few. As previous posts on TheEnergyFix demonstrate, Southern California Edison is widely hailed for rolling out programs that are working. So is Oklahoma Gas & Electric.

This is the control device and thermostat used for the PowerCents DC pilot program which involved about 800 PEPCO ratepayers. Credit: PowerCents DC

Another success story to emulate is the “PowerCents DC” effort in the nation’s capital. Rather than rely predominantly on door hangers, direct mail, Facebook, bill inserts and / or blast emails, the District of Columbia consumer advocates partnered with DC Public Service Commission, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the local distribution utility, Pepco, in a pilot program to communicate — in person —  about what’s in the smart grid for them.

And rather than yield to the utility and its web site to make resources available online, the PowerCents DC team developed a dedicated web site to answer questions and facilitate communications.

Now the District of Columbia is a relatively homogeneous geographic market for its entirely urban consumers. But residents span the demographics and income segments that make two lessons from this pilot program worth heeding, according to Office of Peoples Counsel’s Jennifer Weberski whom TheEnergyFix caught up with at this week’s annual GridWeek conference in Washington:

1) utilities, consumer advocates and other key stakeholders should collaborate with consumer advocates taking the lead; and

2) customize messages for different segments of ratepayers.

Click through to hear and see Weberski elaborate on the value of engaging customers in person.

What civil society in the U.S. needs is for some organization to step up to the plate and develop educational materials — dare I say an education campaign — that utilities and jurisdictions in their service territories could adopt — and pay for. A well-researched and proven campaign could do wonders to help consumers understand how they stand to benefit but also their responsibilities. Energy is not free nor is its impact free on the environment that we all share. Customers can get that.

Foundations and trade associations: are you ‘listening?’

According to Erich Gunther, who chairs the  Intelligent Grid Coordinating Committee at the the Institute of Electrical and Electrical Engineers (IEEE), the Institute has an education fund but there is no consensus on how to proceed. “No one wants to bite the bullet,” Gunther told TheEnergyFix. “Our industry has a hard time getting critical mass to address these issues,” said Gunther, who is Chairman and Chief Technology Officer of EnerNex.

In its first report on the State of the Consumer vis a vis smart grid applications, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative conducted three focus groups as part of a year-long research effort in 2010. Each supported the view expressed by consumer advocates that more interactive exchanges with human beings, along with multiple points of contact, are “critical” for understanding what the smart grid can do for them.

In its 2010 report on Understanding Consumer Preferences in Energy Efficiency, Accenture asserted that “utilities/energy providers need to build increased consumer knowledge by engaging in a multi-tiered awareness program that involves collaboration with stakeholders such as government, environmental groups, and an array of local and online communities.”

About Southern California Edison, Gunther said “Every aspect of what they’ve done is close to right…working closely with regulators … educating customers. They’ve hired design firms for high-end products and used techniques from other industries to understand consumers’ responses to things.”

“People need to see the value or they will infer the opposite,” Gunther added.

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