Consumer survey: door remains open to utilities
SGCC study shows education increases favorability
As far as consumer awareness of, or value attributed to, a smarter grid is concerned, the good news and the bad news of the past year can be summed up in the same sentence: no change.
That's good news if you were concerned about the seemingly high level of noise, confusion and disinformation—and fears, legitimate or otherwise—that accompanied media mention of smart meters.
That's bad news if your utility, like the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), which released a new consumer attitude study today, considers it your mission to educate consumers on why your smart grid projects (or rate increases, for that matter) should be approved.
The hard truth: consumer awareness is low and shows no change over a year's time.
"Disappointed" summed up the reaction to these results by Patty Durand, executive director of the SGCC, whose mission is to educate consumers, provide the means for utilities to do the same and certainly hopes to document changes when the proverbial needle moves.
Durand told me yesterday she understands the mission will take time, but I sensed that she and I agreed on the fact that it won't move without considerable effort by all stakeholders. (She called attention, again, to the SGCC's resources on customer segmentation, education and messaging available to utilities.)
You can find the new study posted on the SGCC's website and I suggest that you satisfy yourself as to the rigor of the telephone survey of nearly 1,100 Americans from August to September and tease out a few nuances that might be of use to you and your utility. (Respondents had to be 18 years of age, head of household and the sample represented national demographics.)
For me, apart from the obvious upshots of little change over the past year (the first such SGCC survey was taken in August 2011), the new survey added some significant detail around the potential opportunity that remains for raising consumer awareness and how that opportunity might be exploited.
First, the survey found that educating consumers improves their favorability towards their utility and its smart grid efforts.
Second, broadband access is widespread across the nation, as are in-home wireless networks, offering not only a channel for education but also the infrastructure for actual utility programs.
Third, something like half of all homes have social media accounts, which could be leveraged to make energy use monitoring, energy program participation and other engagement activities fun and cool, particularly for the Internet-savvy generation to come.
"That's the message from research," Durand told me. "Education increases favorability. Don't take that lightly."
Though some utilities apparently want to deploy smart metering and related systems with as little fanfare as possible, avoiding customer education and, presumably, controversy, other utilities have reaped the benefits of customer education, she said.
The other upshot of the foregoing study findings: Technologically, Durand pointed out, households are ready for smart grid-related apps and "a lot of tech players are waiting to access those markets."
"People are connected," Durand said. "And people are interested."
One finding that really popped for me: the two most widely supported benefits (respondents said they'd pay a modest premium for them) are increased reliability and decreased environmental impacts. Specifically, when a smarter grid's benefit is described as decreasing the number and duration of outages, consumers will pay. When a smarter grid's benefit is described as enabling more renewable energy sources and, thus, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, respondents also are willing to pony up.
This directly supports my mantra that reasonable steps at reasonable cost to reduce harmful emissions and protect air and water quality have long been mainstream American values.
In Durand's view, the emphasis on traditional reliability may well be a result of the number of well-publicized and, indeed, widespread and prolonged outages of the past year. The fact that those particular outages were the result of severe, even extreme weather tentatively linked to anthropogenic climate change may have led to support for the second, environmentally linked smart grid benefit. Regardless of the stock anyone puts in those connections, mainstream environmental values are supported by other facts, Durand said.
"More than 30 states have renewable energy portfolio standards," she said. "The governors of those states didn't just wake up one day and say, `Let's do this.' People at the grassroots demanded them. Our research supports the fact that people want a mix of energy sources, including renewables. There's a general desire for a diversity of sources and for energy independence and people equate those things with renewable energy."
In terms of rates and pricing, the new study confirmed the high consumer interest in critical peak rebates, or CPR.
For stakeholders—utilities, regulators, consumer advocates and others—who are hesitating to move to dynamic pricing, CPR represents "the shallow end of the pool" where there's no risk to consumers, Durand pointed out.
The study reiterated the value of customer segmentation and messaging that prioritizes the concerns of each segment. The SGCC study out today reviewed the segments that it has identified, which roughly correspond to those established by myriad others, and provided a statement that captures their outlook:
- Traditionals: "Frankly, we're not at all sure Smart Grid is needed."
- Concerned Greens: "Smart grid and smart meters will help protect the environment."
- Young America: "We wish someone would tell us how Smart Grid can help us save money and help the environment."
- Easy Street: "We can afford to pay for electricity. The cost isn't that much, on our budget."
- DIY & Save: "Energy efficiency and Smart Grid programs sound appealing, because they would help us save money."
Durand added that because no single smart grid theme or message shows significantly more traction than others, messaging that combines a few benefits may resonate with consumers.
"It's not useful to limit yourself to one theme," Durand said. "We often encounter utilities that suggest customers will `save money,' otherwise they won't care. Our research has shown that multiple benefits attract interest and will gain more traction."
Many of these points and others documented in the new SGCC study are worthy of further, indeed perennial, discussion and I'd welcome all interested parties to constructively weigh in on the pros and cons.
Intelligent Utility Daily