To reap the full benefits of a system that matches supply and demand, utilities will have to work a lot harder to deliver real-time information about pricing, energy use, and the status of smart appliances to desktop computers or mobile devices.
That information will help customers understand that they can take more control over their energy use, save money on household bills, and enter into a closer partnership with their utilities.
A new survey of 900 electricity consumers in the US Midwest found that most want to save money on their bills, and a majority want to reduce their energy use. But more than half had not heard of smart-grid technology, and even among those who had, 80 percent did not feel confident about their knowledge.
When given a description of what smart-grid technology can provide, nearly all survey respondents said they were willing to adapt to it, especially if it enhanced energy conservation or helped provide or restore power.
But utilities are unlikely to convert customers to the cause unless they know more about their clients’ values and expectations, said the report from PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“To fully capture the opportunities created by this shift, utilities must develop an entirely new type of customer relationship,” the report said.
The urged utilities to stop thinking of their customers as ratepayers and listen more closely to what “increasingly savvy” customers are telling them about the services they want.
The survey found that customers want more frequent communications about energy use from their utility using alarms and alerts such as text messages that would provide such information as pricing and outage restoration.
“The more a utility can demonstrate to customers that it understands their needs and interests, the more likely customers will be to trust their utility,” said the report, which was sponsored by an unidentified investor-owned Midwest utility but conducted independently by PwC.
Customer Engagement A New Kind Of Challenge
Part of the challenge will be to overcome the resistance of a minority of customers who believe that smart meters will compromise their privacy, their safety or their health, said Andrew Roehr, managing director for PwC’s power and utilities practice, and an author of the report, entitled “Listening to the Heartland: Insights into a customer-centric strategy for the smart grid.”
“Maybe what they perceive as being a problem for them really isn’t,” Roehr told Breaking Energy.
Companies that don’t forge a new type of relationship risk the costly failure of smart-grid rollouts because they don’t recognize changing consumer demands before too many dollars have been spent, the report warned.
While customers are expecting more information from utilities, the power providers can seek feedback via focus groups or social media, Roehr said.
The traditional communication channels of monthly bills and door hangers aren’t enough to reach a critical mass of today’s consumers, and that’s going to be a problem for many regulated utilities that have been insulated from the market place.
“For many utilities, customer engagement isn’t something that they had to do,” Roehr said.