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Smart Grid: A Customer Challenge

Consumers hold the key to technology’s benefits.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2009

for example, will have to be re-tooled as energy advisers with the ability to provide information and persuade customers in the way to use energy and shape their loads. System operators similarly will require a greater sensitivity toward how their control activities minimize consumer and system disruptions.

The challenge in shaping development programs for internal audiences is that needs likely will be fluid as utilities come to understand the characteristics of their adoption segments better and as they work through various technical issues ( e.g., data management, security, etc.). This will require an approach that facilitates learning and that can evolve over time. It will require strong partnerships between managers and front-line employees, as well as across departments, to ensure a flow of information and development to evolve effective program strategies.

As employees achieve energy conservation advisory and technical roles, there are a few key activities (see Figures 1 and 2) where the focus will be on program offerings rather than segment characteristics ( see Figure 3 ). For example, job titles and the utility brand will help employees take interest and pride in a new way of serving customers and performing their roles. Employee engagement in using new (experimental) energy/load control devices and then the development of new work processes will increase their abilities to be persuasive and enthusiastic with customers. Screen designs and scripts or job aids will need to evolve with customer and operational insights to make the most of opportunities as they arise. And training scenarios and call recordings can help employees better visualize impactful behavior they can use.

It’s likely that independent third parties or perhaps utility spin-offs could help utilities access best-practice materials for motivating and enabling their employees. This will be important to accelerate results in the national grid and avoid costly errors or reinvention.

Achieving the Potential

For the smart grid to realize its potential, utilities and regulators will have to start treating this as the customer recruitment and retention challenge that it is. While the industry might have learned a lot about ways to shape customer participation in energy-conservation programs, accelerating smart-grid results will require a more systematic and deliberate approach—including a greater appreciation for the decision-making processes that smart-grid marketing will attempt to influence among consumers.

Accelerating the realization of benefits for the smart grid requires work in four specific areas. First, utilities need a consumption model that will help educate residential consumers on how installed capacity and life-style characteristics influence supply demands and timing. For most utilities this can be done through simple consumer surveys and multivariate statistical analyses drawing on existing models. Second, segmentation based on knowledge of specific customer characteristics will drive program designs and the rate of adoption. Prior experiences with adoption of conservation ( e.g., timing and extent of conservation) might be enough to define segments and factors ( e.g., age, price sensitivity or certain installed load characteristics) that will influence adoption rates. Third, program offers and rate designs need to be tailored for adoption segments to optimize participation and retention needed to