Consumers generally positive on grid work

Low knowledge = communication challenges

Phil Carson | Jun 25, 2012


We hear about consumers a lot these days—near-mythical beasts, more frequently cited than sighted—but who is really listening to them? 

Sure, a few progressive utilities make it their business to understand their customers and align their practices in accordance with their findings. You see this primarily in municipal and cooperative utilities, with a smattering of forward-looking investor-owned utilities tossed in. But beyond these brave few, most of us kick around "the consumer" or "the customer" in our discourse as if the person who ultimately pays was a mere soccer ball. 

In contrast, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) has done admirable work in developing a customer segmentation framework and in gathering and presenting as much current research as is publicly available. See our previous coverage in the following articles: 


The SGCC recently issued a report in its "Consumer Voices" series that deserves a closer look. Essentially, the SGCC established interviewing facilities in Atlanta, Ga., Los Angeles, Calif. and Chicago, Ill. in April. The organization recruited 24 subjects in each city and asked them about their awareness and perceptions of various smart grid-related topics and issues. 

We'll review findings here, but if you go to the SGCC website, you'll find video vignettes of survey respondents from different cities and different customer segments. 

The study sought a balance among the five customer segments that the SGCC has developed: Easy Street, DIY & Save, Concerned Greens, Young America and Traditionals. The results are offered with the caveat that they produce insight, but don't represent a statistically meaningful sample. Thus, good information for discussion, but insufficient data to base programs on. 

I'll attempt a rough synopsis of the report's key findings, aided by the well-organized report. Some of the following may sound familiar, either due to previous studies (some by the SGCC) or because they appear intuitive. 

Smart grid awareness is low. Given basic briefings on smart grid's intended benefits, most were positive, some wanted more information and some expressed concerns over costs. (No one rejected the idea.) Willingness to pay varied by customer segment. Shown a list of smart grid benefits, most considered the benefits important to them. Improved reliability and restoration were top rated benefits, but increased access to renewable energy came next. Usage information and new pricing options came next. 

Further, and of possible relevance to the debate over how to counter noise and hysteria over smart meters (featured in two recent columns, "Crossroads 2012: Meters and the Future" and "Meters = Surveillance?"):

Positive messaging is more persuasive than negative messaging.

There's more: Time-of-use pricing and peak time rebates appealed to more than half the study's participants. And combining two findings: most participants said they wanted their utility to take a leadership role and to do so quickly. 

About those positive messages: the most persuasive appear to be around quicker restoration of power after a blackout, modernization is needed to maintain the system and to meet future demand, smarter grids will enable renewables, now required by many states. 

Less persuasive messages included the notion that the grid must be improved to withstand the impacts of electric vehicles and that grid investments will create jobs and stimulate the economy. 

The upshot here, for me, is that grid modernization remains a reasonably agreeable value proposition, but one that has not been presented in such a way that residents of major U.S. cities could cite much about the "smart grid." The survey probed, but did not find, any of the vociferous pushback that we've examined in this column. Thus, the customer remains open-minded, particularly when benefits relate to perennial power industry positives such as reliability. And newer concepts such as sustainability—reflected in the interest around renewables—have substantial support. 

The big "if," ironically, remains utility motive and credibility, as reflected in a recent column in which power industry veterans considered the plausibility of the arguments made by an anti-smart meter activist. Will the direct customer benefits described in the foregoing SGCC survey actually come to pass? More specifically, for instance, will smart meters actually help reduce restoration time?

If so, then utilities have a great story to tell and a receptive audience. Why then is the industry that supplies the single most important energy source and staple of modern life beyond water itself not able to produce more knowledgeable citizens, who would sing the praises of grid modernization by heart, if approached by an interviewer? 

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

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Still theoretical

I live in Boulder, CO, which was the city chosen by Xcel for the first in the nation "Smart Grid City". Starting back in 2008, Xcel installed infrastructure including a fiber network to every residence and business, smart meters for everybody, and upgrades to our local grid. After installation of the infrastructure, the residents of Boulder were supposed to take part in various studies of the benefits of smart grid.

Mr. Carson has written his opinions of this experiment elsewhere, but here are mine. Originally Xcel was supposed to spend $15 million putting in the infrastructure for a city of 100,000, but it wound up costing $45 million. Xcel claimed most of the cost overruns were in installing the fiber network (I never understoody why they needed the massive bandwidth of fiber to each customer to monitor our electric usage, even if they were doing it on a second by second basis).

After that, nothing happened. There were a couple of demo homes somewhere, and a few residences were forced to try various incentive pricing plans based on time-of-day usage, but for most of us nothing happened. Apparently there are still major issues with security and standards for monitoring adapters to plug our appliances into (you can't buy appliances yet with smart grid built in). I don't know who was supposed to pay for these adapters, but they certainly wouldn't be cheap when you have to plug every appliance you wish to monitor into one of them.

So the experiment failed to bring any of the promises of smart grid Mr. Carson talks about to Boulder. Xcel for its part has been lobbying for Colorado ratepayers across the state to pay for its cost overruns in Boulder. Boulder, fed up with Xcel over this and many other injustices (real and perceived) has seriously started down the path of creating its own power utility. If it does, ironically it will leave paying for the smart grid experiment to the rest of the state. Boulder can't afford the fiber optic network, so it probably will have to resort to sending around monthly meter readers again while the expensive fiber optic network goes dark (fortunately the smart meters still display a KWH number).

And so it goes. If the industry really wants to make the bright shiny promises of smart grid a reality, it will have to do much better than this.

          Milton Scritsmier

          Boulder, CO