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Traffic Signal Ahead

Smart grid evolution requires two-way communication—with meters and with customers themselves.

Fortnightly Magazine - September 2011

and text messages (10 percent).

But utilities report that they actually do recognize their consumers’ communication preferences. One of the surveyed utility executives noted, “Consumers are going to want more real-time information that they can act on; they will want to see how their actions immediately change their usage patterns and what the costs [and] benefits are.” More than half of utilities (52 percent) say they enable customers to select their preferred methods of communication. When asked what non-traditional communication methods utilities use, many said they connect with customers in person. Other methods utilities employ to engage customers include: billboards and television advertisements, board meetings, in-person seminars, customer feedback surveys, in-house visits, articles and advertisements in magazines, videos, workshops, and on-street booths. As more consumers turn to the Internet and social media for real-time information, it might be time for utilities to consider recreating in-person events online.

Clear communication and actionable data are key to keeping the communication momentum going. One executive noted, “Constant communication in whatever form is best for the customer.” Another respondent stated that “continuous research, upgrades, and support” were ways to continually engage customers. Other ways that executives keep customers engaged in smart grid initiatives include, to “continue to offer products that help them save energy” and “providing them with information on their savings.” Utilities recognize that buy-in is critical, but unless they start communicating—in a two-way, dynamic fashion—with their customers, they’re missing the boat. Next-generation utilities must shift out of their comfort zone and start speaking in their customers’ language.

Predictions for the Future

This communication shift is especially necessary to start spurring real consumer change. According to utilities that have implemented pilot programs or system-wide smart grid deployments, they expect that just 38 percent of their customers will take advantage of energy conservation programs once available. A majority (68 percent) of those executives said that in-home displays for real-time access to usage and cost data will take off the fastest with customers. The next most popular responses included smart appliances (41 percent), mobile device portals (36 percent), distributed energy resources (20 percent), and electricity storage (12 percent). But again, regular, consistent communication with customers—via multiple channels—is required for utilities to communicate the benefits of these new programs and start driving up adoption.

The report also found that utilities see technology integration and vendor partnerships as critical for the road ahead. Over the next five years, 41 percent of utilities said that the critical technology issues that will most impact their organization include integrating new and old technologies and partnering with the right technology vendors that provide and develop applications that will lead them into the future. Perhaps not too surprising, only 11 percent of the executives thought that the critical technology issues that will most impact their organization included justifying the need to migrate away from current legacy IT infrastructure.

Utilities anticipate funding major power generation and grid improvement projects over the next five years. Fifty-one percent said the most critical financial issues that will most impact their organization were obtaining financial support and risk mitigation