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The Community-owned Difference: Lessons for Maintaining a Customer Focus

image credit: © Wanida Prapan | Dreamstime.com

This item is part of the Special Issue - 01/2020 - Predictions & Trends, click here for more

After a wonderful and productive four-year stint proudly serving as the president and CEO of the Utilities Technology Council, I have returned to the American Public Power Association—where I previously spent 15-years advocating on behalf of public power utilities. Refocusing on the broader electric utility policy arena, I believe that public power (and, frankly, the entire industry) will continue to pursue distribution optimization in response to evolving customer expectations. There’s no doubt that there are massive operational challenges facing the industry, including cybersecurity, but through it all, electric utilities—particularly public power—must keep a keen focus on the customer.

Public power utilities were created to always have the customer front of mind.  As community-owned, not-for-profit enterprises of local and state governments, their rates are set locally and decisions about energy mix and infrastructure investments are made by the community they serve. The trend toward the “utility of the future” or “utility 2.0” is similarly all about the customer.  For this reason, public power utilities are poised to lead the electric sector in responding to customer preferences.  What can we learn from the way public power utilities have long engaged with their customers and how they – and the entire sector – can apply this knowledge to enable an even greater relationship with those customers in 2020 and beyond?

Become Part of the Community

Every year during the first full week of October, public power utilities across the country participate in “Public Power Week.”  While each utility takes a localized approach to Public Power Week, common celebrations include:  hosting a community fair or picnic with bucket trucks and perhaps other city services, like fire and police, are featured; working with schools to educate students on what electricity is and how to stay safe around it; flying a banner over “Main Street” reminding the community who the utility is and why they do what they do; and using social media channels to highlight how the utility has helped the community.

Beyond Public Power Week, public power utilities participate in community events throughout the year – bucket trucks decorated with lights are often featured in Christmas parades, for example.  Utilities often find ways to offer in-kind support to charity events and community service projects.  Public power’s strong history of community service inspired APPA to create an annual “Public Power Day of Giving.” With our National Conference heading to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Association and our members knew we had to do something to give back, and this tradition has continued—with the Association organizing service projects each year in the city that hosts our National Conference.

Listen to Your Community

Public power utilities have long offered customized programs, like energy efficiency, that are typically “opt in” and have been doing so even more in recent years in cutting-edge areas. Offerings such as time-of-use rates, community solar projects, management of rooftop solar, and electric vehicle purchase and charging incentives are some examples.  In most cases they have done so not because of federal mandates, but because their customers have asked it of them.  Some communities encouraged their utilities to undertake highly innovative projects such as landfill-gas-to-energy sites that siphon greenhouse gas emissions from landfills to produce energy – and they undertook these projects decades ago because of community support and interest.

Communicate with Your Community

The most successful public power utilities are both visible in their communities, as discussed above, and transparent about challenges such as unexpected outages.  They also communicate about how decisions are made with the mission to ensure affordable, safe, reliable, and environmentally sustainable electricity.  This communication comes in a variety of forms – from talking to local chambers of commerce and community groups to being active via both social and traditional media.

Many successful public power utilities have even trained their call center and payment center employees (yes, many people still pay their bills in person) to communicate other important information to customers during these transactions. 

Ensure You Are Engaged in Policy Matters

Public power utilities have long understood that policymakers require education about electric utility operations, resources and regulatory challenges.  They engage locally, at the state level, and -- in coordination with APPA -- at the federal level to rigorously educate policymakers, develop relationships and ensure policies are enacted that are beneficial to customers. 

In the policy arena especially, unintended consequences can hinder public power from unleashing its full potential to respond to customers’ evolving expectations.  Many customers now desire more flexible electric service that can both push electricity into homes and businesses while also being able to accept power from behind-the-meter resources produced in those very homes and businesses.  To maintain safe and reliable power in this more flexible grid future, utilities need high levels of situational awareness.  A recent federally imposed obstacle to such awareness and innovation is a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruling that behind-the-meter energy storage resources are allowed to engage in wholesale electricity markets over the objection of state and local authorities, which could lead to adverse reliability impacts to distribution grids.  Beyond the jurisdictional overreach by FERC (into the arena of local decision-making), this could lead to serious unintended consequences. 

If allowed to work with their communities directly and without such disruptive policies, public power utilities will undoubtedly give their customers what they want and need – flexible, community-focused utility of the future.

Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 28, 2020

Beyond Public Power Week, public power utilities participate in community events throughout the year 

This seems so critical-- it's great to have one week a year where the utilities are in the focus, but it seems like branding is important on a consistent basis. Too many customers only ever think of their utility when paying a bill or dealing with an outage-- both events that are not favorable in anyone's mind! But if you are a constant presence in community events and part of the regular fold of things, you can build real relationships which are the basis of so many great opportunities for utilities and their customers.

Thanks for sharing, Joy!

Joy Ditto's picture

Thank Joy for the Post!

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