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Community-Centered Strategies for Engaging Consumers

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Patty Durand's picture
President Cool Planet Solutions LLC

Patty Durand is the founder of Cool Planet Solutions, LLC. She is a consultant offering services to utilities and regulators with a focus on consumer engagement/education around the topics of...

  • Member since 2011
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  • Mar 20, 2020

Each year, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) publishes the “State of the Consumer” report, an analysis of the previous year’s consumer research that provides a few major trends around the needs and wants of today’s residential energy consumers. Over the decade-long history of this annual report, one area has proven to be a mainstay: education.

SECC’s “2020 State of the Consumer” report, published in January, points to education as a requirement to increase energy engagement and address the needs of today's consumers. Whether it’s research into rate design, distributed energy resources or other areas of smart energy, consumer awareness and understanding of these topics is generally low.

However, once consumers are educated and understand the benefits to them, interest level is often quite high, and once enrolled, they are more likely to engage in other programs. These engaged consumers are typically much more satisfied with their electricity providers, and the end point here is what all stakeholders want: engaged and satisfied consumers. It all begins with an effective education and outreach strategy.

While electricity providers are increasingly experimenting with new strategies, the State of Illinois provides a notable case study for its efforts stemming from 2011’s Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, which authorized a $3.2 billion smart grid investment from Ameren Illinois and ComEd. Due to the efforts of consumer advocates, the act included a $50 million literacy and education fund to raise awareness of the smart grid, smart meters and AMI-enabled technologies. One-third of the fund must reach low-income, senior and other hard-to-reach consumers.

The fund is managed by the Illinois Science & Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF), a private, nonprofit organization that distributes funding through two annual grant cycles. Funds are transferred annually by Ameren Illinois and ComEd; however, ISEIF operates independently from them. A grantee cohort of 25 to 35 organizations – called a “community of practice” – is convened every year, and these grantees share best practices and insights on educating and engaging Illinois consumers.

ISEIF’s funding areas cover a mix of high- and low-touch engagement strategies, but the largest area is supporting grassroots organizations who already have trust and recognition in communities. These organizations go into lower-income and hard-to-reach communities and present information on energy topics and programs in a relatable, highly conversational manner, and this method has proven to be more successful in many cases than a utility sending marketing materials.

Other areas funded by ISEIF include research and technology, which includes pilot programs that focus on how low-income communities can benefit from home energy management technology; STEM and youth-serving programs, which supports energy education in a STEM context for K-12 students (Smart Grid for Schools); and communications campaigns that utilize digital media, TV, websites and more for low-touch interactions on important energy topics.

One organization that has received funding during many of ISEIF’s grant cycles is the Chicago-based nonprofit Elevate Energy. This organization designs and implements energy programs that reduce costs, protect consumers and the environment, and ensure that energy efficiency and clean energy benefit lower-income and other hard-to-reach consumers. Elevate Energy implements energy efficiency and renewable energy programs for utilities in lower-income communities.

Since their beginning 20 years ago, Elevate Energy’s engagement model has focused on meeting consumers where they are in their communities and with issues that matter to them. The first level of their community engagement pyramid involves one-on-one meetings with elected officials and community leaders and neighborhood canvassing to introduce themselves and their programs. This level also includes listening to the communities’ needs and learning where civic meetings are taking place and where community news is being shared.

Once this foundation is set, Elevate Energy aims to be invited to speak in front of community meetings (block clubs, church groups, PTA meetings, etc.) and workshops at libraries, community centers or local government offices. In many of lower-income communities, there is distrust of outside parties due to past experiences where groups have tried to take advantage of residents. Elevate Energy is mindful of this dynamic and aims to be a trusted messenger that delivers on what they say they will.

The third and final level of the pyramid involves lunch-and-learn workshops at community-based businesses and “house parties”, where residents invite Elevate Energy into their homes to talk about energy efficiency with neighbors. In these venues, an Elevate Energy outreach coordinator will help residents learn how to better understand their energy bills and help them evaluate the options available through their electricity providers. Throughout their 20-year history, Elevate Energy has found this model to be very effective in developing meaningful engagement with these communities.

Have Elevate Energy’s efforts and other community-based engagement strategies positively impacted consumer awareness and understanding in Illinois? To assess the effectiveness of these strategies, researchers from Loyola University and the Heartland Alliance conducted focus groups and phone interviews with consumers who had participated in a grassroots education program, such as a house party or a workshop. Consumers were recruited from five different Chicago neighborhoods and two suburbs in order to get a wide range of perspectives.

The research confirmed that participants retained the key points from the presentations both one month after the presentation and then again four months later. Participants reported remembering information about saving money and smart meters the most; however, there was also considerable retention of other topics, such as bill analysis/monitoring and peak-time pricing.

The researchers asked participants about any actions or behavior changes following the presentation and found that over half (56 percent) started using more energy-saving devices. Roughly one-third (29 percent) completed a home energy assessment, and 12 percent started shifting their energy usage with an hourly pricing program. A few participants stated that they were not financially ready to make any energy-efficient upgrades at that time.

Finally, participants were asked whether they had shared the information from the presentation with others, and 79 percent stated that they had. They most commonly shared information was about the benefits of LED lights and dealing with drafts and leaks in the home; consumers were less likely to share information about smart meters.

Education is an important and necessary first step for delivering the benefits of smart energy to consumers, and as demonstrated by ISEIF’s community of practice, community-centered education and engagement strategies can be a valuable tool for industry stakeholders across the country to use in developing more meaningful relationships with energy consumers.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 20, 2020

They most commonly shared information was about the benefits of LED lights and dealing with drafts and leaks in the home; consumers were less likely to share information about smart meters.

This is an interesting point, and underscores the importance in 'visible' topics are compared with harder to understand and less tangible topics

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