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Bringing Customers On Board, part II

The entire utility-consumer relationship must be reengineered.

Fortnightly Magazine - August 2010

program elements by early adopter utilities embarking on AMI projects before the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was launched to provide additional funds for energy infrastructure and demonstration projects. Now, with stimulus funds flowing, many more additional field pilots are being planned and executed.

The logic is simple and straightforward—test the solution with a sub-segment of the service area population to work out any bugs. Field pilots can be valuable and are based upon sound strategies that should be continued. However, they could be improved upon through format and scope re-design.

Traditional pilots seek to identify a geographic area or customer class to test varying technologies prior to rollout to the entire service area. Households and businesses participating in such pilots likely will be subject to the same technologies, programs, rate structures, and benefits to be tested by the utility. While the focus remains on proof of concept, performance, and scalability, the concept of customer adoption is typically seen as an associated benefit if the participants react favourably to the pilots. I believe, however, that including a control group, comprised of residential or commercial consumers who represent a do-nothing alternative, is necessary to expand the reach and effectiveness of customer-adoption efforts. In particular, the control group should be subjected to the same rate structures, real-time pricing programs, and peak-reduction events in scope for the pilot, but without the tools and technologies to participate in the programs. Instead, communicate frequently with these consumers about how their energy consumption behavior would be reflected in energy charges expected to become the norm with current and pending regulations.

Although this control group wouldn’t be responsible for paying these charges, it provides an immediate comparison demonstrating how increasing energy costs can affect consumers if they don’t become part of the solution. It seems likely that a consumer who is presented with a scenario of increasing costs might be more prone to want to actively participate in these programs knowing in advance what the future might hold for them.

Face-to-Face Networking : Web portals and bill inserts remain popular with utilities as channels for communicating with customers, but these traditional methods likely won’t hit the mark. With the amount of information overload consumers currently face, one-way communications probably won’t do the job of bringing customers on board to the world of smart metering.

Hitting the Road

Many companies and organizations are experimenting with various approaches to educating and engaging utility customers. For one novel idea, look to Siemens Energy, which recently announced a smart-grid roadshow—an exhibit contained in a space that is about 70 feet wide and 30 feet high, which showcases end-to-end smart-grid solutions. 3 The six-city Siemens tour is part of an ambitious smart-grid education campaign. “Visitors can experience the automation and distribution process from generation to transmission via videos, interactive demos, and educational sessions with Siemens experts and more,” according to a spokeswoman. Although the exhibit is geared to multiple audiences, including utilities and T&D professionals, a specific focus on the end consumer is included—to demonstrate how energy generation through transmission and distribution occurs;