Fact: utility customers care about more than cost

New survey cites multiple drivers for consumer behavior

Phil Carson | Mar 13, 2012

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The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) is trying to find out how real consumers think and feel about aspects of grid modernization and what motivates them.

The SGCC's "Consumer Pulse Research Program Wave 2" report provides some fairly straightforward conclusions from the organization's recent consumer survey and some nuance, so I'd recommend reading it yourself. (That includes the all-important aspects of how the survey was conducted at the end of 2011.)

The executive summary offers that consumer awareness of smart grid and smart meters remains low - about half of consumers have never heard either term and another 21 percent say they've heard the terms but don't know what they mean. A little over half who've heard these terms generally have a positive impression. But these findings vary by traditional demographics and by customer segment, a more critical arbiter of values, behaviors and motivations, according to the SGCC and others.

Not surprisingly, consumers were most positive when told that a smarter grid could prevent some outages and reduce the length of those outages. Surprisingly, the benefit that the highest percentage of customers said was important enough to justify a higher electric bill was that, by easing the integration of renewable energy onto the grid, a smarter grid could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The two most positive messages around a smarter grid were found to be, first, that it could create jobs and that related spending could boost the economy by $12 billion in the next two years and, second, that the grid is decades old and wearing out. The two most negative messages were that people could lose control of their energy usage and possibly lose energy use data privacy.  

But in a chat this week with Patty Durand, executive director of the SGCC, she called out several additional points she believes deserve attention.

First, adding customer segmentation to existing demographic information will yield improved results for marketing and messaging. In the SGCC survey, the most important benefits varied by respondent segment, Durand said, underscoring the first commandment of marketing: segment your customers, understand your strongest segments and prepare and offer your best services that appeal to your best segments.

"We want to get away from type-casting customers based on where they live, their income, their political party," Durand said. "What we're trying to say is that these beliefs and opinions (captured by customer segmentation) cross all demographic boundaries."

Further, all seven benefits described as outcomes of smarter grids were deemed important to 80 percent of respondents, which underscored two conclusions, Durand said. First, in the oft-repeated mantra, there's "no single silver bullet." Second, and more importantly, the survey results challenge the conventional wisdom in the power industry that all utility customers care about is "saving money."

"You hear that at every conference," Durand said. "I heard it last week at the Grid ComForum in San Diego. Our research shows that that's just not true. We're having a hard time getting that message out there. But we know it takes time for research to move the needle.

"Utilities need to understand that consumers care a lot about a lot of things," Durand said. "Utilities can choose to understand their customers by segment in order to maximize participation (in their programs) and then message to those segments. Or they can weave together a set of important reasons that the smart grid benefits their customers, and stay away from just one simple message, such as 'you're going to save money.'"

Summarizing these and other survey results, Durand emphasized a few take-aways.

"The first really important take-away is that after hearing both positive and negative messages, smart grid favorability increased across all segments," Durand said.

There's some nuance to this, she said. In previous surveys, 54 percent of respondents hadn't heard of smart grid and another 23 percent had, but didn't know what the term meant.

"So the numbers are pretty low, in terms of awareness," she said. "But after hearing about benefits and issue statements (around data privacy, e.g.) favorability rose from 54 percent to 68 percent across all respondents. That's an important outcome. Once we lay all the benefits and concerns in front of them, smart grid favorability still increases quite a bit. We didn't just spout positive things, we discussed data privacy, customer control of data—there were eight, mentioned in the report—we laid those out as well.

"We concluded that people want to know more and, once they're educated, they're more and more interested in the benefits," Durand said.

Another major upshot came from consumer attitudes on dynamic pricing.

After hearing a typical description of dynamic pricing, 44 percent of respondents said they'd be likely to participate, and another 23 percent said they "might or might not."

After hearing a description of a typical critical peak rebate program, 59 percent said they were likely to participate, and another 20 percent said they might or might not.

"What we took away is that people are interested in being offered variable rate plans," Durand said. "I think this is a big deal. We need to work to dispel the myth out there that people only want flat-rate pricing. This research establishes that that's not true."

Finally, the SGCC, through its development of survey methods and content and its grasp of customer knowledge and attitudes around smart grids, has composed 12 questions that utilities can incorporate into their own surveys to define customer segments based on their values, behaviors and motivations.

No free lunch, folks. The report is free in exchange for your email address, but obtaining the dozen questions to facilitate segmentation of your customer base requires membership in the SGCC, which supports its research and outreach efforts.

For more discussion of utility customers, see these other articles:

"The Grid: An Investment Too Costly to Ignore?"

"The Customer: Still Utilities' Ally to Lose" 

"Utilities Must Step Up or Customers Will Step Down"

Phil Carson
Editor-in-chief
Intelligent Utility Daily
pcarson@energycentral.com
303-228-4757

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Comments

Operate the Grid Around Customers

SGCC's findings are encouraging, but they don;t mean utilities can expect consumers to blindly subsume their electricity usage habits to the needs of the grid.  There may be some consumers who will gladly allow the grid operator to cycle their air conditioners, but the more likely case is grid operators controlling what they can and finding ways to elicit beneficial consumption behaviors without being able to directly control appliances and business processes. 

For their part, regulators and policymakers need to understand the importance of balancing reliability against cost.  Consumers won't tolerate daily curtailments, but neither are they willing to pay for perfect reliability, or at least the illusion of perfect reliability.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

Thanks Jack

To reiterate, I think any and every utility that wants behavioral change from customers had better be transparent on the reasons. For one thing, the "customer" really isn't a customer, except in competitive markets. Otherwise, call them "captive customers," because they don't have any choice.

Munis and co-ops have an easier time whatever they need to do because of their business model, but IOUs will struggle with transparency, due to their multiple masters and general lack of customer engagement. Capacity constraints, I think, will fly as a reason for customers to change behavior (think California) and shaving the peak to avoid brownouts is a no-brainer. Beyond that, what are the rationales?

Regards, Phil Carson

Insights Appreciated

I appreciate your focus on the customer when discussing Smart Grid issues. Your publication has been doing a great job of identifying the challenges we face.

Subject needs clarity

A lot of straightforward, transparent conversations about the "customer" are overdue.

For capacity-constrained utilities -- either system-wide constraints or individual feeder constraints -- the issue often is around shaving peak to avoid brownouts or delaying capital expenditures (and accommodating lengthy permitting) for new generation.

For other utilities, the issue may be closer to wise use of a resource that has mining, transportation and emissions implications. Use less, pollute less.

For yet others, it's  actually about empowering the consumer to manage energy use, because in the short term, until we resolve political disputes over what energy sources should be subsidized (if any at all), and due to the cost of grid modernization, costs will rise.

All these scenarios include an embarrassing fact of American life -- we use far more energy per person than any other society on earth and much of that energy is simply wasted through carelessness and ignorance of the consequences.

Energy use does correlate with quality of life, but what's hidden is that our current profligacy is not sustainable. If we want to continue our lifestyles, it'll be necessary to pursue energy efficiency with a passion, while incorporating and exploring every sustainable energy use possible. That's quite a mix, and we're a day late and a dollar short, still confused over why we can't just waste whatever we want if we can afford it. Problem is, you can pay your monthly bill or even gas up at high prices, but conflict over increasingly precious energy sources will rise while our backs are turned. In fact, that's already underway.

So, the discussion of the "customer's" role is also the question around the voter and taxpayer and citizen having a clear idea of why the power industry is changing and how it ought to serve national and local needs for economic prosperity and security.

Just a thought. Happy Wednesday.

Regards, Phil Carson