1 Feb 2013

Southern California Edison’s smart grid progress provides valuable lessons for utilities

Written by Jim Pierobon

With more U.S. homes receiving smart meters and more utilities deploying their smart grid infrastructures, there are handful of utilities that have made notable progress with valuable lessons to share for the rest of the industry. I’m talking primarily about CenterPoint Energy in Houston, Oklahoma Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison.

Virtually every other utility that has yet to complete its deployment should heed what these utilities have accomplished and how they did it, paying careful attention to how they’re engaging their customers.

SCE smarty pants billboard

This billboard in southern California is just one illustration of how Southern California Edison promotes its money-saving “SmartConnect” programs.

I’ll start here with Southern California Edison because the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative this week recognized it with its first utility “CLEAR” award for serving as a role model in the development and implementation of consumer education programs. Comverge earned the first non-utility CLEAR award.

CLEAR stands for a utility’s CONSUMER-centric approach; LEADERSHIP in enabling consumer control of their energy use; EXCELLENCE in creating consumer-facing initiatives; AUTHENTICITY by how it engages consumers and RESULTS that demonstrate a direct impact on consumer awareness and behavior.

Southern California Edison, a unit of SCE Corp., began installing smart meters in 2009 and was introducing smart-meter enabled programs to some customers by the end of 2010. Today, close to 5 million customer connections have access to a suite of tools enabled by its Edison “SmartConnect” program. As the second-largest deployment anywhere in the U.S., the sheer scale of this achievement is worth a Harvard Business School case study.

The largest deployment is, and will always be by Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves about 9 million customer connections throughout  central and northern California. But after a few missteps that its leaders have publicly acknowledged, most industry assessments consider Southern California Edison as the leading large-scale success story to emulate. (Disclosure: I helped the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative gather information about utilities’ smart grid deployments and coordinated the early administration of the CLEAR awards.)

This CLEAR award was spotlighted by the Collaborative at its annual Consumer Symposium January 28 a day in front of the annual DistribuTECH conference and expo in San Diego. Be sure to read the Collaborative’s 2013 State of the Consumer Report here for a comprehensive update and summary of what’s working to engage consumers.

From the start, Southern California Edison has strived to ensure a positive customer experience during program implementation. It notified customers of deployment with community events, targeted media relations announcements, television ads, radio spots, billboards (photo) and just-in-time letters. It allowed customers to schedule installations if the first attempt did not work out. This proactive approach enabled the utility to achieve an 85% customer satisfaction early on in the smart meter installation process.

How many utilities have an 85% customer satisfaction rating they can point too?

When it makes sense, Southern California Edison talks about a “digital network” that serves as the foundation for a smart grid of the 21st century that is enabling customers to get the most out of its “new intelligent infrastructure.” Whether it’s controlling their own usage, identifying power-related issues in the home, shortening power outages and /or improving the environment, the Edison SmartConnect program provides customers with information needed to better manage their electricity costs.

I know this is California and much of the rest of the country might distinguish it from the ‘real world’. And yes, I’m well aware of how expensive electricity can be in California; perhaps THAT is the biggest motivator  from the consumer’s perspective.

To that I say hogwash. THIS is the future and the way utilities, as regulated monopolies, should be mandated to perform in return for the right to serve the market they have exclusive access to.

Customers get it. It’s high time that their regulated utilities, and those who regulate and make the laws that govern them, get it too.

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