Meaningful Interaction: KCP&L Customers Speak Out

Stephen Smith | Sep 08, 2009

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While utilities are undertaking a variety of measures to better manage peak demand and contain costs, true energy management success hinges on the ability to actively engage and interact with residential and commercial customers.

Technologies like in-home displays and smart thermostats can help facilitate utility-to-customer interaction to share actionable energy data. This information can help customers become more informed, motivated and able to change their energy use behaviors. The key, however, is providing the right information to truly impact consumption behavior.

A number of utilities are exploring two-way communications via a smart meter network to help facilitate this interaction. The smart meter network lets utilities share more information through advanced technology like thermostats equipped with two-way communications to connect with smart meters and networks. With this functionality, utilities can send information directly to and receive information from the thermostat. For example, utilities can provide specific, near real-time billing data, including current rates, month-to-date charges and year-over-year usage comparisons, to help drive smarter customer energy use.

Once connected to the customer, utilities are also working to ensure customers receive energy information they can use. A good example is Kansas City Power & Light's (KCP&L) Energy Optimizer demand response program. By enrolling in the program, customers allow KCP&L to cycle their air conditioners off and on for brief intervals when energy consumption peaks. In return for their participation, customers receive a free thermostat. The thermostat is part of KCP&L's effort to not only drive customer participation, but also ensure customers are equipped with tools to help them better manage their energy usage. For example, KCP&L will have the ability to send customized text messages to customers, including information like weather forecasts or details on other demand side management programs.

When it comes to increased interaction with KCP&L, Joel Patterson, a 25-year residential customer, said he'd be open to communication with KCP&L via his thermostat, provided it entails sharing truly useful and actionable information.

"I prefer utilities to be transparent, and I'm wary of information overload," Patterson said. "But having the right information and interaction capabilities at my fingertips could be not only fun and eye-opening, but also very useful if it enabled me to make better decisions about my energy use."

KCP&L customer Commerce Bank has taken a partnership approach with the utility and thus welcomes steady and consistent interaction.

"We've gotten more aggressive in managing our energy costs, and KCP&L has been a good partner in helping us to do so through efforts like the Energy Optimizer program," said Steve Byrne, vice president of corporate facilities for Commerce Bank in Kansas City. "We rely on proactive communications and consistent interaction with our utility. Information that allows us to ultimately better manage our energy costs is always a good thing."

Byrne notes regular use of the utility's customer-enabled Web site is one way in which Commerce Bank relies on real-time information from the utility. The Web site allows Commerce Bank to view billing and usage data, including cost-per-square-footage, for any of its participating branches. In terms of leveraging the smart meter network in the future for increased interaction, Byrne sees that as extremely beneficial for Commerce Bank, as well.

"As a multi-location organization, energy is the main contributor to our occupancy costs," Byrne said. "Interaction with our utility is critical to efficiently managing our usage, so anything that can generate meaningful data to manage cost and consumption -- in real time, no less -- is going to be beneficial and worthwhile."

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Intelligent Utility magazine is the new, thought-leading publication on how to successfully deliver information-enabled energy. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue.

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