Utilities and The State of the Consumer

smart energy

Ten years ago, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) was founded to understand the wants/needs of energy consumers in North America and share those learnings with industry stakeholders.

The 2020 Symposium gathered members to reflect on the past decade and look to where consumer needs are heading into the next decade. The one-day symposium was held on January 27th, 2020 in San Antonio at DistribuTECH, the utility industry’s leading transmission & distribution conference.

From the Symposium, it is clear customers want more from utilities. Yet, utilities are not moving fast enough. Customers are ready to engage in saving energy, but it needs to be on their terms.

So, how can utility providers succeed at meeting energy consumers’ needs into the next decade?

Focus on Customer Centricity and Becoming Agile

Building off the SECC Member Meeting this past October, utility services need to focus on being customer-centric and agile. Consumer expectations are driving the future of the industry. They want access to more energy-saving technology and renewable sources.

In May 2019, the US had over 2 million solar installations across the country. Electric vehicle sales increased by 81% in the US from 2017 to 2018. As the appetite for energy-saving technology grows, utilities will need to expand their suite of solutions. If utility services do not meet consumer needs, then they will look to other private companies to fill them.

Top 3 Ways for Utility Providers to Become Customer-Centric and Agile

1. Segment customers and map their journey

Looking at the past decade of SECC research, the importance of segmentation remains a consistent theme. This is largely due to the wealth of information available through digital technology on consumer values, behaviors, and motivations.

Tailoring engagement efforts to specific customer segments will increase the return on investment. Stacey Kinley, Vice President of Strategy and Development at Maru/Matchbox moderated a panel discussion with industry experts during the Symposium. They discussed understanding customer needs in relation to Distributed Energy Resources (DERs). The discussion underscored the importance of using SECC’s consumer segmentation to address the needs of consumers and motivate them to use DERs.

Customer journey mapping is also an important tool for utility providers, as it ensures new programs and initiatives are achieving consumer goals. This exercise was instrumental to the success of the smart city initiative undertaken by Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU). Mapping each journey allowed CSU to develop working groups to solve challenges within each journey.

2. Smart small with grassroots projects

Keeping a “people first” mentality was a core theme of the Symposium and underscored by the keynote speaker Paula Gold-Williams, the President & CEO of CPS Energy. As the utility of San Antonio, CPS focuses on keeping their customers first by making call times longer, not shorter, to ensure all needs are met. CPS also invests in the community with charitable giving that supports San Antonio.

Keeping the community first was a key part of NB Power’s Smart Energy Community Project in Shediac, New Brunswick – a best practice award winner at the symposium. NB Power listened carefully to the community of less than 7,000 people to understand their needs. They engaged face-to-face with residents to test different smart technologies in their home and build a smart community. ComEd followed a similar path for their Smart Grid Program. The pilot program focused on a specific neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Focusing on a specific area allowed ComEd to tailor the project and connect with customers more closely.

3. Partner with private companies, municipalities, and regulators.

With the diverse nature of consumers, the Symposium emphasized the need for utility service providers to partner with private companies to deliver on technology. Without these partnerships, utilities will be left behind and cut out of the process.

Private company partnerships are necessary for utility providers to remain relevant and deliver on customer satisfaction. Utilities that also need to adhere to the needs of regulators and municipalities must include these stakeholders in the conversation.

For public utilities, municipalities are already reaching out to their utility provider to help them overcome challenges with their residents. In the case of Shediac, NB, the local government approached NB Power with the idea of becoming a smart city to address migration out of the area. The government and local businesses needed a way to attract young people to the area to address economic issues. NB Power focused on making the project about the community rather than the utility in order for the partnership to succeed.

Colorado Springs Utility was also approached by their municipality to create a smart city to address optimizing the city’s resources. Installing smart sensors allowed them to deploy snowplows to regions that typically see more snow due to specific weather patterns – enabling the city to use resources more effectively.

By working together, potential issues can also be addressed in advanced. During the panel discussion on DERs led by Maru/Matchbox, Gregory Knight (Chief Customer Officer at National Grid) noted electrificiation may put more stress on the electric grid. As more municipalities aim to become smart cities, utilities and local governments will need to partner together to make these initiatives successful.

For more information about customer or employee engagement communities or other agile solutions in the utilities space, please reach out to Marie.Darrigo@marumatchbox.com.

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