Misrepresenting the public isn't a very good idea

Warren B. Causey | Jan 29, 2010


Jamie Wimberly, CEO of EcoAlign, Washington, D.C., is a very reasonable environmentalist. There are others out there besides Jamie (I even like to include myself, sometimes). However, reasonable environmentalists are sometimes difficult to find amid the babble of radicals that sometimes seem like they want to shut down all of modern civilization and move human beings back into caves, or remove them from planet entirely so "nature" can have its way. Thus, when I want to get a reasonable environmentalist's opinion, I call Jamie, who always is gracious about answering reasonable questions reasonably.

One of the things that really troubles me about the current smart grid hype is that vendors, politicians and others are constantly making the statements like:

"The general public wants more information about their energy usage!" or

"People want to know and control their usage so they can save money!" 

In addition to serving as an analyst in the utility industry, I also am a local pastor of a small, but growing, church. I also live in a subdivision and know a lot of my neighbors -- working folks who generally leave in the morning and come back tired in the evening. Thus, I interact daily with "average folks" like me.

Among all those average folks, I haven't run across one -- not one -- who is clamoring to have a smart thermostat or an energy control device installed in their homes. In fact, when I ask any of them about it -- after I explain what it is -- their reaction invariably is negative. "I don't have time for that," is the most common reaction, or, "They're not going to come into my house and turn off my appliances whenever they want."

Thus, I turned to Jamie Wimberly, whose company conducts excellent broad-based surveys that also consistently show a lack of public interest in demand response, to see if I was just being myopic about this great desire of the public for demand response as being promoted by so many. 

"What we tested is language in how the industry talks about and positions demand response," Wimberly said. "The industry positioning isn't working, there are deep negatives to it. Oftentimes the way programs are structured -- especially direct load control -- turn people off. People get that electricity costs can have different structures when they receive it. They don't get why someone should come into their house and install direct load control. They get uncomfortable about control issues.

"In residential demand response, some of things that need to be worked on include communications and language," Wimberly continued. "It needs to have a more customer-oriented description of the offering. The offering needs to be solutions-oriented; it's often couched for utility to control the load. Most people have figured out that global warming and renewables are expensive and don't want to pay for them. I would start couching it in terms of experience instead of political babble around the environment."

To have an environmentalist say that is a little surprising and another reason I like to talk to Jamie. His surveys consistently have shown that only about 15 percent of the general public has bought into paying more money to "clean up the environment." Probing a little further, I asked him, "Isn't it possible the general public just doesn't want to have anything to do with any of this?"

"Sure, that's a possibility, the general public just doesn't want it," he agreed readily. "But it's getting almost impossible to site new generation resources. That leads to the broader question of what do they want? What will they bear the costs of? Do they want a new distribution line going through their backyard? The cost of electricity is going to go up. The infrastructure is 40 years old or older. The idea there are some solutions that are going to keep the cost of electricity where it is is just not going to happen. New nuclear plants are not cheap either. We have gas, but no one building coal, and gas is boom or bust." 

I didn't push Jamie any further, I like being able to call him occasionally. But for you, my reader, I will go a bit further. If the general public doesn't like demand response, and polls show it doesn't care for government-run healthcare either, then why are we in all this turmoil? Even a scientist who wrote chapters in the U.N.'s climate scare documents admitted in the last week the process was too political and there now is a backtrack saying the Himalayan glaciers are not going to melt in the near future, as claimed by the U.N.'s intergovernmental panel on climate.

The reason it is getting almost impossible to site new generation resources (even including renewable and transmission to bring that intermittent power to the grid, as my colleague Bill Opalka has been writing about in our RenewablesBiz Daily newsletter) is that politicians have been pushing alleged global warming as a reason for driving up the prices of electricity and everything associated with it. And yet, only about 15 percent of the general public buys into it to the extent they are willing to sit in a dark home office with the only illumination being the glow from a computer screen, as another colleague, Christine Richards, wrote about earlier this week.

I understand that this is a widespread political movement with a majority of current federal office-holders behind it, but vendors serving the utility industry might be a bit more cautious about trying to sell things based on the theory that the public is demanding it. It just isn't true. And political movements, especially ones where certain politicians think they're so much smarter than the general public and try to force things down their throats, have a habit of dying out just about as rapidly as they arise -- see Massachusetts. Utilities are precisely correct in moving as slowly as regulation and law allows in all this. Regulations and laws get changed when the public gets fed up. They already seem to be getting there.

I always enjoy hearing from readers and engaging in meaningful debate. Feel free to contact me anytime at wcausey@energycentral.com.

Warren Causey is vice president of Sierra Energy Group, a division of Energy Central.

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Warren - Excellent perspective.  While I understand (but don't necessarily agree with the influence of politicians and the media), I also recognize the the general public just doesn't know what they don't know.  Many consumers probably don't even understand all of the components of their monthly electricity bills let alone the fact that they ultimately pay for spinning reserves that typically have low utilization - almost like an insurance policy.  I believe the network of regulators, utilities, vendors, and consumers need to find a middle ground where data becomes information - and something that they will want to know about.  Consumers should be given an opportunity to become educated as an obligation by their service providers - from carbon footprint to consumption to what -if scenario planning using different rate structures available to them.  Opt-in programs are the correct structure if not mandated by legislation.  Effective opt-in programs need to target the value proposition plain and simple.