Changing Customer Behavior Might be Utilities’ Hardest Task

I just returned from DistribuTECH Conference & Exhibition 2011 in San Diego. It was great! You can read more about it in the post-show article that begins on page 18.

As in years past, smart grid was the topic du jour. A bit different this year was the keen interest in customers and customer outreach. In addition, more people outside the electricity industry attended this year. Several local television stations and newspapers reported from the event.

Mainstream media stories are excellent ways to grab customers’ attention and show them how they can benefit from smart grid. An article in The San Diego-Union Tribune caught my eye Feb. 1, which was DistribuTECH’s opening day. Onell Soto wrote about several of the exhibition hall’s energy-saving, customer-facing technologies that enable customers to interact easily with their utilities and save energy. He wrote about OPower and how its offering that compares consumers’ energy appetites with those of their neighbors has persuaded customers to conserve energy. It’s kind of a keeping up with the Joneses thing. Soto also described how some of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.’s customers can use Google’s PowerMeter to learn about their power use. And he mentioned an Intel prototype that includes “a big switch” that can be flipped off by the last person to leave the house in the morning. The device would turn off unnecessary electric devices when nobody’s home, otherwise known as vampire devices. The first person home later in the day would then switch on the device and everything would come back to life.

Applications being developed in the customer engagement area are exciting; at least they are to me. Reading the comments on the Web version of Soto’s article, however, I found that many people aren’t excited. They’re downright hostile about their utilities’ asking them to alter their electricity usage.

I’ve heard that engaging customers will be difficult for utilities, but I was flabbergasted by the negative comments following Soto’s article. Only one of the 13 comments was remotely favorable. The people who commented don’t want to change their energy-use behavior. They think their utilities are out to cheat them or maybe worse.

One wrote, “They want us to not heat or cool our houses, live in the dark, put the TV in storage, sell the hot tub, fill in the pool, turn off the computer, basically, go live under a rock. Is this it, is this the time in history when we turn around and go backwards, to live with less and less? We need to run these people out of town, the ones that believe that the only way is the less way.”

Another wrote, “Never get up in the morning without asking, what can I do today to lower my standard of living?”

Yet another said, “Anytime we conserve anything, it seems that the utility begins to ache for lack of money … then raise their rates. Conservation is beginning to become a bad word to me. Besides, I’m referred to as a consumer–so I should be consuming … right?”

Most other comments were as negative. California electric utility customers experienced some bad times during the past decade, so maybe this helps explain why the comments are so harsh. Whatever the reason, customer engagement must be at the top of the list, maybe for many years.

Editor in chief TERESA HANSEN

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