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The Importance of Empowering Customers: Innovative Shifts for Utilities

Laura Gousha's picture
Vice President of Engagement Mindgrub

I am the Vice President of Engagement at Mindgrub Technologies, a Baltimore based technology consulting firm that provides strategic solutions for the utility industry. My expertise is in digital...

  • Member since 2020
  • 9 items added with 9,164 views
  • Mar 24, 2020

This item is part of the Innovations in Power - Spring 2020 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

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With more energy providers and options available to customers than ever before, there is a major change slowly sweeping through the electric power industry.

In an increasingly competitive market, utilities are starting to recognize the value of investing in engaging customer experiences, and meeting customers on their devices (e.g., tablets, smartphones, and wearables).

In fact, here are some quick stats demonstrating just how “on the go” we have become:

The majority of customers expect to have information available on-demand. They want real-time data related to energy usage, outage information, and energy savings suggestions. At the same time, customers are also looking to engage with sustainable energy solutions such as solar.

So, what exactly are utilities doing to better engage their customers and leverage the power of data and the newest technologies to improve service delivery?

We’ll take a look at innovations in digital products and grid integrations. And since innovations in solar technologies are helping electric utility companies become more customer-centric and efficient, we’ll also examine a case study involving solar energy.

The Demand for Digital Transformation 

According to J.D. Power’s 2019 Utility Digital Experience Study, utilities (electric, natural gas, and water) are not performing as well as other consumer-facing industries when it comes to providing exceptional digital services. And it will be costly for those that don’t make the switch.

There is an especially large opportunity to engage with solar customers. In most cases, current solar adopters have to utilize third-party services to view their panel information, view performance data, and track credits. As a result of this disconnect, the utility does not become the direct source of information. However, by providing consolidated, easy to use tools, utilities regain this connection to the customer, improving customer experience and ultimately increasing solar adoption. 

User-friendly tools, such as rich dashboards and data visualization, have become increasingly important as customers become more engaged in their energy consumption. By having control of data provided by these tools, customers are using it to make better decisions to save money and conserve energy. Utility companies in turn can then improve their own efficiencies and better manage energy loads.

Mobile apps are great tools to communicate all of this information because they offer the perfect channel to stay connected to and engage their customers. Through easy to use features, utility apps offer exceptional delivery on a platform optimized for customers on the go.

Opportunity to Innovate

A number of utilities offer tools for solar customers. 

One best-in-class example includes SMUD’s Solar System Estimator, a mobile responsive interactive tool that allows customers to determine the potential benefits of installing a solar system. The tool calculates savings potential based on the unique characteristics of the customers home, their current electricity use, current electricity rates, and available state and federal tax credits and rebates. 

Utilities are also sharing live solar information directly with their customers to support their mission of delivering green energy solutions. A great example comes from Tucson Electric Power. They provide a data and visually rich landing page that provides customers with real-time information on their solar units.  

While these tools offer a wealth of information to customers, most utilities are not offering personalized features for solar customers. Innovating to support customers, however, is critical as energy demands and the need for clean energy alternatives continue to rise. Creating rich dashboards specifically tailored to meet the needs of your solar customers is therefore of prime importance.

Critical elements and opportunities for these digital tools include: 

  • Energy usage and data management information (i.e., power generated vs. used vs. exported to the grid)

  • Outage information (using maps/features) and how to report an outage

  • Bill payment, billing history, and savings information

  • Trend detection and custom push notifications in large facilities

  • Gamification, including goal setting and rewards for energy efficiency 

Traditionally, dashboards have been developed for desktop users. This is changing as customers are relying far more on their mobile devices. Therefore, strong consideration should be given to mobile applications as a preferred platform for information delivery. Not only is it a more accessible platform, it also offers greater opportunities for real-time messaging and Internet of Things (IoT) integration.

Innovation in mobile has also come from the supplier side. One such example comes from Morningstar, an international supplier of off-grid solar charge controllers and inverters, and its 4kW MultiWave™ Inverter/Charger user interface. Because this type of power-conversion device is typically used to supply off-grid electricity in remote areas or in places that are difficult to access, it was crucial that the platform be as reliable and failure-free as possible, and remotely controllable in those instances where the owner does not have regular, direct access. Customers are able to control settings and review data using a customizable, card-based dashboard from their mobile devices.

Morningstar’s user interface for its 4kW MultiWave™ Inverter/Charger.


The energy utility industry is experiencing a wave of innovation, from online offerings to renewable resource integration, to provide superior customer service. 

The overwhelming evidence and support for these changes is clear—if you aren’t making adjustments to your business now, you could get left behind.

When evaluating your digital services, consider combining user research and behavioral data in order to really understand what your customers are looking for. Then you’ll be able to develop the right custom portal or mobile app to meet their needs.

Incorporating these innovative technologies into your business could help increase customer sign ups and loyalty, as well as your bottom line. Taking it a step further by integrating these technologies with solar will not only potentially open up your service areas, but you’ll be seen as a leader in innovation and sustainability.

While making changes can be difficult, remember that it all hinges on customer empowerment. When you provide your customers with the best services and information, you’ll be sure to see a return on your investments.

Laura Gousha's picture
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2020

Really great overview. I think it's also important for utilities pushing out new digital tools for customers to recognize there's definitely no one size fits all solution for customers-- some want to dive deep into data, others want to know the essentials and nothing else; some want a mobile app at the palm of their hands at all times, others only want periodic check ins. Will be fascinating to see where these trends go!

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 25, 2020

Yes, this is a great sky-high view. Thanks.

I´m afraid that a great deal of the burden for being a knowledgeable and responsible consumer will fall to the younger generations, e.g. millenials.  NOT speaking for anyone but myself, I find it a challenge to understand what role I as a consumer of electricity, water, etc. can realistically play beyond conservation and paying my bills.  What I can and should expect from a utlity provider requires use of tools I am not well equipped to evaluate.  For example,  I can select a vendor for my electricity. But it is all I can do to avoid getting fleeced by electricity brokers who make false promises regarding prices, sources, supplies, ancillary services, etc.

At the same time, older generations have made it difficult, if not impossible, for the young to get ownership of property (due to high property values and taxes, student loans, lack of job security, low pay, etc.) that gives them the incentive that I have to deal effectively on a long term basis with utility providers.

So, the incorporation of these innovative technologies may not happen very quickly or provide the advantages they promise very soon.  I just hope the utility providers take the long view!

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