Customer and Community Engagement Building the Framework to Accelerate Smart Grid Benefits

By Hal Jansen, Westar Energy, and David Green, Elster Solutions

Successful businesses aren’t based upon the best technologies. They’re neither based upon the most efficient operations, nor are they based upon the best customer service. Successful businesses are based on all of these factors, especially in the utility industry.

As utilities incorporate modern technologies to improve energy management and support increasing energy loads, prioritizing customer needs is vital to the success of these new initiatives.

After all, without customers, utilities wouldn’t exist. Investments such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) can save money for utilities and customers, but the transition to new technological territory is much smoother and more successful with customer awareness, support and, most of all, customer engagement.

With the customer-facing educational programs utilities are creating for advanced metering and smart grid systems, end users are increasingly able to obtain and understand personal energy consumption information. The availability of these programs, however, is only part of the equation. Encouraging customers to become engaged is still difficult.

No particular customer or service territory is the same, meaning there is no single method for successfully engaging end users. Rather, best practices from utilities that are pioneering smart grid customer engagement can be used to form a general framework for other utilities to consider when developing their engagement strategies.

The main principles of education, communication and customer care can be employed to increase customer engagement and reap the full benefits of the smart grid. These principles work together to ensure the highest levels of customer engagement and satisfaction.

Education: Smart + Grid = [Insert Customer Understanding]

Smart grid has become a buzzword in the energy industry and the media, but research shows the general population’s understanding of the smart grid remains low. How do customers become involved with something they don’t understand?

The first step to engaging customers in smart grid programs is through teaching what the smart grid is, its capabilities and its potential benefits for customers, utilities and the environment.

The U.S. Department of Energy suggests four technology types will drive smart grid advancement:

  • Integrated, automated communication between components of the electric grid,
  • Sensing and measurement technologies,
  • Automated controls for distribution and repairs, and
  • Improved management dashboards and decision-support software.

Because many components make up the smart grid, utilities can shape the definition they provide to customers based on technologies they plan to deploy. Utilities should start by deciding internally their grid modernization goals and objectives. From there, they can create a series of succinct, consistent messages that result in a positive image in customer minds.

The aforementioned technologies that create the smart grid come with modern grid capabilities. Each utility will pursue technologies that fit its operational goals and needs.

Outlining for customers the specific capabilities and expected performance results from the smart grid deployment will help them understand the scope of the project and support the utility’s investment.

The factors that will resonate best with customers are the benefits from modernizing the utility’s grid infrastructure.

The better customers understand the smart grid–especially how it can benefit their lives and wallets–the more engaged they will become in smart grid programs.

Smart grid capabilities that have been successful for utilities and customers include:

  • AMI. The two-way communication between meters and utilities enabled by AMI allows for data collection and analysis, which leads to many additional capabilities described below.
  • Outage management system (OMS). By integrating the communication capabilities of AMI, utilities rapidly can identify fault locations within the power delivery network that have produced the outage.
  • Distribution automation (DA). DA encompasses a set of technologies that enable utilities to monitor, coordinate and operate distribution components in a real-time mode from remote locations.
  • Dynamic pricing structures, such as time-of-use (TOU) rates. Shifting from traditional pricing methods based on a flat rate paid for quantity of electricity used, TOU pricing structures use variable pricing that charges a higher rate during peak hours and lower rates during off-peak hours. These structures are about choice and offer different rate plans that can fit varying energy lifestyles to different customer segments.
  • Energy management tools. With AMI, consumption data is digitized and communicated back to utilities over the Internet, providing usage pattern insight to utilities and customers.
  • Environmental impact. With the efficiencies posed by the smart grid, such as the remote monitoring, connect and disconnect, less energy is wasted from unnecessary maintenance truck rolls. Customer efficiency steps taken as a result of better information also positively impact the environment.

Communication

Communication gets customers involved from the start and plays a critical role in education. Utilities can engage customers by reaching out to all community sectors, executing marketing campaigns and educating utility employees to act as project advocates and experts.

A beneficial first step to engage customers is connecting with community leaders and organizations such as city and county officials, chambers of commerce, grade schools, universities and media.

Often these community organizations already have energy programs that can join forces with smart grid initiatives. Community leaders and organizations educated about smart grid benefits will help those who come to them for trusted information understand the benefits and engage in utilities’ smart grid programs.

For community leaders and organizations, a personalized approach will garner trust and rapport with utility representatives. Offering face-to-face meetings and demonstrations with community officials and educational leaders is appropriate to ensure understanding and promote support, which can be spread throughout the community.

Partnering smart grid efforts with local energy initiatives can generate widespread community enthusiasm.

To reach a broader scale, encourage community leaders to hold more events such as open houses and information sessions where utility representatives can answer questions, explain initiatives and connect with customers. Utilities can organize opportunities for customers to talk with utility representatives in person about projects.

It might be difficult to reach the potential hundreds of thousands of customers in a service territory, but educational marketing campaigns can spread key smart grid messaging. Marketing materials can include direct mail, postcards, door hangers and more. In addition, Westar Energy in Kansas has developed many social media tools and consumer-friendly websites as communication channels with customers, for example, http://westarenergy.com.

Another customer engagement tool is utility employees, who often live within their employers’ service territories and can act as expert resources for fellow end users.

Regardless whether employees are involved with smart grid programs, their friends and neighbors will look to them for information. Ensuring all utility personnel are fluent in smart grid initiatives and benefits will provide another resource for engaging everyday users, because the knowledge and credibility of utility employees reflects directly back on the trustworthiness of the utility.

Tying it all Together with Customer Care

Just as education and communication go together in engaging customers in smart grid programs, emphasizing the importance of customers throughout the first two processes is vital to ensuring smart grid acceptance.

One way to demonstrate customer care is by administering customer surveys before, during and after smart grid deployments. This way utilities can identify customers’ concerns, address them from the beginning and anticipate issues throughout the remaining stages.

Using customer surveys and other utilities’ smart grid deployments as references will help develop customer-driven communication plans. Having a comprehensive plan of what to communicate and how should issues arise keeps customers central while proactively addressing concerns.

Throughout each customer engagement tactic utilities must remain accessible and responsive to customer needs and inquiries. When utilities provide continuous support and open communication, customers grow their trust for utilities and feel more connected to utility initiatives.

In addition, a strong customer support system will help customers understand and effectively use smart grid programs. An open communication stream also will provide customers a forum for feedback.

Smart grid deployments are not always perfectly smooth, and every customer might not accept or be satisfied with smart grid initiatives. Being receptive to positive and negative customer feedback will help continuously strengthen and improve smart grid programs and customer satisfaction.

The purpose of the smart grid is to improve utility service and programs for customers and provide operational efficiencies and savings to utilities. Implementing strong educational, communication and customer service tactics will allow customers to become more supportive of the initiatives and more involved with making smart grid programs successful.

Hal Jensen serves as the director of SmartStar Programs at Westar Energy. SmartStar is the Westar branding for its customer-facing smart grid initiatives. Jensen has been in the position since rejoining Westar in 2008.

David Green is executive vice president of customers and markets in North America for Elster Solutions. His responsibilities include all sales and marketing activities in North America, legislative and regulatory affairs, market analysis, strategic planning and customer communications.

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