Customer Service, DER-Grid Edge, Smart Grid, T&D

Customer engagement in the era of distributed energy

Mike Ballard, Julia Lundin and Caitlin Aburrow, Contributors

Since the birth of the modern utility industry, utilities have been built around parallel tracks of grid management and customer service. Over time, those individual tracks have evolved, but have remained in parallel – separate and siloed. Today, however, those parallel tracks are converging in a way that will forever reshape the utility industry.  

This convergence is the epitome of disruption. It is here, it is all around us. There is a great deal of value that will be created by this change, but to extract that value, we must understand that convergence and in turn reframe how we approach the challenges that come with it.

The proliferation of Distributed Energy Resources (DER) like rooftop solar and battery storage presents a clear opportunity to put that reframing into practice.

Reshaping the Customer-Centric Grid

As customers install solar and battery storage at their homes and businesses, the grid becomes increasingly distributed. Those customers’ place in the utility ecosystem moves from the grid edge to the center, truly creating the customer-centric grid of tomorrow. In this new ecosystem, the relationship between utility and customer, between utility generation and customer generation, between customer engagement and demand management, pulls those once parallel tracks into a single continuous loop, with grid management and the customer journey intertwined.  

In this new utility shape, customer engagement and grid management can no longer be approached separately – optimization of the customer journey and the grid must be synchronized. For the DER challenge, we can break this into two necessary components that must drive synchronization: Distributed Energy Resource Management and Distributed Energy Resource Engagement.

DER Management

As we jump into this convergence of grid management and customer engagement, we need to have the full picture of the specific challenge driving that convergence. In this case, we need a comprehensive view of DER assets across the grid, including both utility-owned and customer-owned assets. Continuous visibility into medium- and low-voltage networks is critical. At present, most DER are outside utilities’ direct control. Intermittent distributed generation and variations in consumption patterns create information which is vital to efficient control of the modern network.  But this happens outside the reach of traditional utility SCADA systems and DMS.

We need to instead visualize the whole grid, giving utilities the full view necessary to manage the modern grid. Gaining visibility into aggregated DER on a singular grid model — including generation capacity and storage capacity — helps ensure utilities can leverage each DER asset across the network as a grid optimization resource, either directly or via aggregator service providers. By enabling automation and optimization of all DER management, both utility-scale and customer participants, the utility will be better able to ensure reliability and efficiency even as the face of the grid transforms, and furthermore can unlock potential revenue streams from additional value-add service offerings that come along with proliferation of customer-owned solar.  

Visibility and management of DERs across the network is just one piece of the synchronization needed. We must not forget, this DER proliferation is largely driven by individuals and communities. As we seek to understand and manage these assets across the grid, we must also seek to understand how best to engage the customers behind them.  

DER Engagement

Earlier this year, Oracle undertook an extensive market and user research program to understand how customer engagement is changing with the rise of DERs, specifically solar. Our findings show that typically, utility customers who install solar have inflated expectations as to how much power they will generate and how much money they can save on their utility bill. Customers also find it difficult to understand solar terminology and the complexity of net billing, and they do not get as many insights into their energy and billing as they would like to.

For the utility, the complexity of solar PV can drive up costs and lower customer satisfaction. One utility reported having 350,000 solar customers – and they log 20,000 calls a month.

Utilities have an opportunity to reframe how they approach DER engagement to make sure that the proliferation of DERs doesn’t drive up cost to serve and increase complexity in how they serve customers in the customer-centric grid.  Utilities can position themselves as trusted advisors to solar customers if they understand the needs of customers in each phase of that solar journey and carve out clear goals for engagement at each stage.

Our research showed that utilities are more mature in what they offer customers who are considering solar. Most utilities offer solar calculators to their customers and can offer a lot of informational material about solar. In this phase, successful utilities seek to set reasonable expectations for customers as far as how solar could benefit them. As customers install solar, there are often fewer utility resources available to them today, creating untapped potential for future engagement.  Utilities can educate customers about solar billing and offer solar onboarding programs to ease the transition. Finally, after customers have installed and are reaping the benefits of solar, utilities can empower customers with deeper energy insights and clear billing with easy-to-understand language.

In working towards the goals across these phases, not only can utilities reduce cost to serve and improve satisfaction levels of those solar customers, but they can leverage that deep engagement to drive participation in additional programs. For instance, utilities can promote electric vehicles to the appropriate target customers. Utilities can guide their solar customers to shift their usage to align with their production and help alleviate the duck curve. As utilities are creating an environment in which customers are willing and able to engage with utility DER programs designed to optimize grid management and stability, they nurture a truly connected grid. In this connected grid, every customer is a grid resource, every device feeds in valuable grid optimization data, and every generation and storage point supports reliability.

Transforming Tech and Teams

Taking on this convergence is both a technology challenge and a team challenge. The DER challenge requires technology solutions to tap into the potential of the distributed grid, to engage that prosumer. But beyond that, utility teams must be prepared and empowered to reshape how they’ve operated for decades.

At Distributech 2018, we listened to a spirited discussion of the importance of customer experience. As the floor opened for questions a participant stepped forward and asked this room full of talented and enthusiastic grid staff, who clearly wanted to impact the customer, “how many of you know a colleague in your customer service organization who you can work with on customer experience issues?” Not a single person raised a hand.

Proliferation of distributed energy resources presents a powerful opportunity for utilities to build a truly customer-centric grid. But to take advantage of that opportunity, there is work to be done. Utility leaders must be prepared to break down the barriers that separate these teams. Empower teams to jump into the convergence of grid and customer together, to combine customer engagement and grid planning and management into a durable strategy for addressing some of the challenges ahead. This synchronization will allow you to develop a new framework required to optimize utility performance in the age of the distributed grid


Mike Ballard is VP of Industry Strategy for Oracle’s Utilities Global Business Unit with global responsibility for defining utility strategy for adopting emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Blockchain and Mobility. Mike joined the Oracle Utilities’ Industry Strategy team from EDF, one of Europe’s largest energy companies, and has been delivering IT solutions to the utility sector for over 20 years.  His experience covers generation, distribution and retail utilities, including significant involvement in the deregulation of the UK energy market.

 

 Julia Lundin is the Director of Opower Solution Management at Oracle Utilities. Julia joined Oracle via the acquisition of Opower in 2016.  She previously worked in Deloitte’s Strategy & Operations consulting practice where she focused on Power & Utilities.  For more than a decade, she has helped leading utilities tackle complex challenges including customer experience and demand side management. Julia has an MBA from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia and a BA from Harvard University.

 

Caitlin Aburrow leads global product marketing for Oracle Utilities, working with utilities around the world to understand the challenges they face and opportunities available as the industry continues to transform at a rapid pace. Before joining Oracle, Caitlin was a founding member of a start-up that delivered real-time financial impact analysis for energy conservation strategies. Caitlin holds a Master’s Degree in International Conflict from King’s College London, where she studied the impact of resource-driven global conflict. Caitlin believes that at the intersection of energy and technology we can unlock innovation that is critical to the well-being of all people.

Oracle will be exhibiting at DistrubuTECH 2019 and speakers from the company will be presenting in multiple sessions including Why a Personal Touch Helps Maximize Behavior Demand Response Success; Preparing the Grid for the Unexpected: Innovative Approaches to Grid Resiliency; and Why the Time is Now for Electric Vehicles and How Utilities Should Prepare for Them. DistribuTECH 2019 takes place in New Orleans from February 5-7, 2019.