Letters: Smart Grid Spending, Customer Service, Smart Meters

Phil Carson | May 21, 2010


We had great input from readers last week and the topic that drove most comments was "the customer" or, more precisely, "the consumer."

I have to confess, I'm beginning to chafe at that term. It renders us all into osmotic blobs of need with two states - satisfied or dissatisfied, happy or angry. Yet it's a tad warmer than, say, "ratepayer." Or "stakeholder," which in the context of smart meter pushback takes on vampire-related overtones with dire implications for utilities.

If anyone knows a smart meter rollout success story to suggest, let's hear from you. We'll examine the best practices angle. With millions installed, I'm sure we can expand our vocabulary beyond "Bakersfield," "Fresno" and "pushback."

I'm also interested to hear about energy management alternatives for the homeowner, as I'll write more this week about the rational for meters and alternatives.

Onward with our readers' insights, the value-add to my own blather.

Last Monday, I posted a column titled "Utilities Rebounding on Smart Grid Spend," which looked at an IDC Energy Insights study that found a 4 percent increase in utility spending on information and communication technology this year over last.

The implication was that utility projects were on hold last year due to the recession but were moving ahead this year due to a more optimistic view of the economy. The study found that 2010 would witness "significant investments" in smart grid in the United States.

This prompted one reader to remark on utility spending on customer education and public communications spending.

"As someone who has transitioned from the advertising industry to the utility industry, I am amazed at how the focus of smart grid is on the technology and not the customer," one reader wrote.

"Smart meter problems (strike) utilities who install first and ask questions (or get yelled at) second," this reader continued. "In my previous life, we would not advise our clients to fundamentally change how their industry works without understanding consumers' needs and barriers. (The situation) might be different if the industry focused on the customer experience and not the technology. I hope utilities are also increasing their education and communication budgets in the years ahead."

I wonder whether a study of education/communication budgets at electric utilities would indeed find such increases. Anyone?

Apparently, I couldn't escape the customer/consumer vortex, as Tuesday's column was titled, "Intelligent Utilities and Customer Satisfaction." The American Customer Satisfaction Survey found the expected link between energy prices and customer satisfaction, but the survey also found that the leading utility (Sempra Energy) offered exemplary customer service.

"Utilities have focused for decades on price and reliability, which are dominated largely by generation, transmission and distribution," one reader commented. "Power has been so reliable that customers expect nothing less. Price and reliability are still central to what utilities do, but at the margin there are greater opportunities on the demand side. In the future, the highest performing utilities will be reliable but 'customization' will become increasingly important.  Educating and creating value for consumers . will be the key to happy customers in the future."

The week ended with "Managing Electricity Use: A Tale of Two Homeowners," a two-part column that looked at how my family entered the middle class in the 1950s and 1960s and, despite frugal practices, our electricity use also burgeoned as we adopted modern conveniences. In the second column, I asked my brother, who is a banker, for his layman's understanding of smart grid. (He did pretty well.)

This drew several similar responses. The following missive is representative of the comments. 

"I am like you, frugal and conscious of energy use," one correspondent wrote. "I think you should expound on a profound truth: people don't think about their energy use. You should address the human element and the different perceptions people have between privilege and right. Besides technology, human morality is a critical link in the effort to reduce energy use. We need mass psychological sessions to get things fixed on this continent. Changing human perceptions is going to take a generation or more!"

Imagine the thought: "human morality is a critical link in the effort to reduce energy use." Indeed, the notion of limits to unbridled consumption of anything is anathema to some and a huge relief to others.

I can envision the furrowed brows and almost hear the keyboards chattering even now.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily




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