State of consumers
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The Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) recently announced the release of a new white paper, Identifying and Meeting Consumer Needs, that highlights successful programmes and services for residential customers from electricity providers across the United States.

The white paper is based on the five themes on consumer needs and wants found in SECC’s 2020 State of the Consumer report, a meta-analysis of 2019 consumer research aimed at providing a big-picture overview of today’s residential energy consumers.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International Issue 3-2020. Read the full digimag  or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

The five themes identified in the report are:

  1. Consumers are more ready than ever to engage on energy.
  2. Segmentation remains essential in a digital world.
  3. Energy engagement is fundamentally a journey for both society and individuals.
  4. Consumer expectations are shaping the future.
  5. Education remains a clear, strategic opportunity to increase energy engagement.

Below we examine the findings in more detail.

Consumers are more ready than ever to engage on energy.

Consumer interest in smart energy programmes, technologies and services – distributed more than 3,400 free energy efficiency kits at customer assistance events and 9,000 kits in schools. These efforts demonstrate that lower-income consumers are also ready to engage — if programmes meet their needs and their top barriers to engagement are addressed by stakeholders.

Segmentation remains essential in a digital world.

One challenge the utility industry continues to face is consumer engagement. Online retailers, rideshare companies and even the travel industry have shown that targeted, personalised messages are not only expected by consumers but they also provide a valuable invitation for engagement.

EDUCATION REMAINS A CLEAR, STRATEGIC OPPORTUNITY TO INCREASE ENERGY ENGAGEMENT.

Oklahoma Gas & Electric Company (OG&E) utilised national electric vehicle (EV) market research studies as a foundation for developing an outreach and education strategy. OG&E used radio, community events whether it is a time-varying rate, a demand response programme or a smart thermostat — continues to grow. While consumer adoption of many such programmes and products is often relatively low, a lack of interest is typically not one of the top barriers.

It was found that most consumers prefer a time-of-use rate over a traditional flat rate when given the option. Also, 74% of consumers expressed interest in receiving bill credits for reducing their energy usage during peak demand, and 31% stated they were likely to purchase a smart thermostat within the next year.

Ameren Illinois has seen considerable engagement in its low-income energy efficiency programmes, showing that interest in energy programmes, services and technologies is not limited to more affluent consumers. The company tailored existing programmes and messaging to better reach low- and moderate-income consumers and offered cash incentives to help these customers make energy-efficient upgrades.

These initiatives have made a significant impact on lowering the energy burden of lower-income consumers while helping them engage in energy programmes and technologies. Ameren Illinois provided 5,400 smart thermostats at no cost to these customers and reduced their annual energy usage by an estimated 2.5 million kWh and 270,000 therms. In addition, Ameren Illinois and targeted paid search ads to address common EV barriers and misconceptions.

These channels also allowed OG&E to educate consumers about the numerous personal, financial and societal benefits to owning and driving an EV.

OG&E saw more than three million impressions on EV-related materials in their monthly newsletter, and nearly 450 EVs were registered in Oklahoma from January to December 2017 — compared to 272 total registrations over the same period in 2016.

Customers expect personalised messages and offers from service providers today, and it is essential that electricity providers meet customer needs in this way.

Energy engagement is fundamentally a journey for both society and individuals.

Historically, electricity providers have focused on a transactional relationship with their customers with limited touchpoints focused around starting/stopping service and bill payment. As consumers become more interested in energy and technology, it is helpful to view engagement as a journey for the customer. This perspective also helps view the customer as they are, constantly changing and evolving — with different engagement interests and levels over time.

San Antonio-based CPS Energy, the largest municipal electric utility in the United States, has reinforced its focus on enhancing the overall customer experience under president & CEO Paula Gold-Williams’ People First philosophy. As part of the strategy, the utility formed a Customer Response Unit (CRU) that is dedicated to increasing community awareness of and enrolment in assistance programmes.

The unit also educates customers about energy efficiency and safety and works directly with customers that have unique needs.

Members of the CRU help connect customers with potentially thousands of dollars in weatherisation upgrades and work to educate customers and match them up with the appropriate programmes and services.

Since its formation in June 2014, the CRU has handled nearly 5,000 cases for CPS Energy customers and has participated in many community events. Customers who have participated in the free weatherisation upgrades have saved approximately $350 annually on energy expenses.

Consumer expectations are shaping the future.

As consumer expectations transform, technology and public policy are also evolving. What is notable, however, is that all three are evolving simultaneously.

Other challenges and opportunities include meeting customer demand for smarter, greener energy that is more resilient and better prepared for severe weather events.

Duke Energy is delivering more options, control and convenience to meet customer expectations. The utility improved the customer experience by deploying usage and high-bill alerts, outage communications, ‘choose your own due date’ services, new payment options and mobile apps that give customers more ways to manage their accounts and energy usage.

Duke Energy has also made strides in how it approaches sustainability. Fuelled by consumers’ growing expectations around addressing climate change, Duke Energy’s plans include advanced renewable energy, longer-lasting storage, low- and zerocarbon fuels, and effective ways to capture carbon emissions.

To meet customer expectations now and going forward, utilities need to make strategic, data-driven investments to improve reliability, use more renewable energy, and provide intelligent tools customers need to make smart energy choices and save money. These investments will provide benefits today — and in the years to come.

Education remains a clear, strategic opportunity to increase energy engagement.

One of the most basic challenges utilities face is how to engage with consumers and provide them with informative tools to make smart energy decisions. This education is key to the success of energy initiatives from new technologies to rate structures.

Utilities nationwide are developing educational programmes — from grassroots ride-and-drive events to mass marketing campaigns and rebates. In Georgia, Cobb EMC, an electric cooperative with nearly 200,000 members, has developed a comprehensive EV programme that includes an educational campaign, builder rebates for installing EV charging, and a special EV charging rate. In 2018, Cobb EMC utilised consumer research to identify that 37% of their customers were “somewhat to very likely” to consider purchasing an electric vehicle and that 53% wanted the utility to offer an EV rate.

Equipped with the themes and real-world examples provided in this white paper, electricity providers can take that a step further by moving consumers along a continuum of engagement, education and participation. The energy industry can deliver new opportunities for consumers to access their energy data through online tools or digital marketplaces with new products; can offer a variety of advanced communications to consumers; and can provide consumers with a world of new energy services and programmes in this exciting digital era.