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Three Utility Programs That Are Empowering Consumers

image credit: Illustration 131396430 © Evgeny Malkov - Dreamstime

The past decade has seen the proliferation of a number of technologies with the potential to help residential consumers engage in their energy use: smart meters, rooftop solar, electric vehicles, home battery storage, smart thermostats, etc. While the technologies have matured significantly, there are still gaps in consumer understanding and engagement that must be overcome to effectively realize the consumer benefits.

To showcase where engagement and education efforts from utilities have been most successful and to provide benchmarks for the utility industry’s customer-centric transformation, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) launched its Best Practices Awards program in the fall of 2017. To date, the program has recognized 16 electricity providers – including investor-owned utilities, retail energy providers and municipal utilities from across the United States and Canada – for their efforts in shifting the industry toward a more consumer-focused future.

The winners are recognized in six categories (the SMB Engagement Awards was added for 2020), and recipients have been highlighted for internal culture transformation strategies, voice-assistant capabilities for energy-related tasks, school-based energy education programs, energy efficiency for lower-income consumers and more. The winning programs are evidence that the emerging customer-centric focus has yielded some benefits for consumers, but we hope that by recognizing these leaders we can further accelerate the industry’s progress in this area.

From the six winners of the 2020 Best Practices Awards, here are three initiatives from utilities are empowering residential energy consumers today:

1. ComEd’s innovative project to improve a neighborhood’s quality-of-life

In Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, a historic area on the South Side, ComEd is developing its Community of the Future to test the real-life application of advanced energy technologies. The foundation of the Community of the Future is the Bronzeville Microgrid, a 7 MW microgrid that provides about 1,000 residences, businesses and public institutions with wind and solar energy. Other aspects of the Community of the Future include off-grid streetlights, community energy storage, smart kiosks, an electric-vehicle (EV) mobility pilot, educational projects and an augmented reality tour.

More than just a collection of innovative technologies, however, the Community of the Future is designed to improve the overall quality of life for Bronzeville residents. ComEd’s goal is to take full advantage of the economic, environmental and consumer benefits of the advanced energy technologies, and to do this, ComEd is engaging with the community to understand their highest priorities around resiliency, mobility, culture, education and more. The utility is leveraging partnerships with local government, academia, local businesses and civic organizations to identify community-specific solutions that can achieve the vision of a smart community that is connected, green and resilient.

To assess the impact of the deployed technologies, ComEd is collecting data for over four-dozen metrics, including those describing the impact of the technologies on the energy system, critical infrastructure and community resilience. This includes how the installation of this project is supporting improvements in local air quality, economic development and the reliability of the electrical infrastructure.

The technologies and educational efforts in the Community of the Future initiative are making it possible for the community to make smarter decisions around their energy usage; but, more holistically, ComEd hopes that the project can drive larger socio-economic improvements for the Bronzeville neighborhood. ComEd believes that this model has the potential to benefit not only communities in ComEd’s service territory, but communities around the world. By tracking best practices and gathering metrics, ComEd wants it to be possible for other utilities to replicate this project and to deploy strategies based on the specific needs of each community.

2. Puget Sound Energy’s campaign to connect consumers with electric vehicles

In recent years, Puget Sound Energy (PSE), the largest energy company in Washington State, has been focused on reducing its carbon emissions and meeting the goals of the state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act. Given that approximately 40 percent of emissions come from transportation, PSE has accordingly increased its efforts to help consumers make the switch to electric vehicles. In 2019, the utility launched the Up & Go Electric initiative, which supports this transformation through a comprehensive education and outreach campaign and by increasing access to charging services in the home and around the community, including charging pilot programs for multifamily residents and lower-income consumers.

The Up & Go Electric education and outreach campaign focuses on three primary objectives: increasing consumer awareness of electric-vehicle technology and charging options; building relationships with target customer segments to provide education and offers that are more likely be welcomed; and, finally, driving adoption of electric vehicles in Washington State.

The target audience for the campaign is a segment that PSE calls the Intenders, consumers who may be considering the purchase of an EV in the next three-to-five years. This segment has some knowledge of electric-vehicle technology – however, they are not early adopters. PSE developed a propensity model based on demographic and psychographic characteristics to identify these consumers in PSE’s customer base, and then used this model to target customer education information.

The execution of the education and outreach campaign involved three stages. First, PSE utilized monthly newsletters, customer service experts and digital content to engage customers and provide general knowledge on EVs. The second step included deploying a cost-comparison tool to help customers evaluate making the switch to an electric vehicle. This tool allows consumers to compare fuel costs, explore different EV models, find applicable rebates and credits, estimate carbon emissions reductions and more. Finally, PSE produced several ride-and-drive events throughout their service territory to let Intenders experience driving an EV outside of the pressure of an auto dealership.

By focusing on likely adopters, PSE created an effective campaign that has helped these customers learn more about driving an EV today and, in many cases, purchase an electric vehicle themselves. In 2019, PSE grew the subscriber list for its EV-specific newsletter by 200 percent in just six months and maintained a consistent open rate of at least 40 percent. At four in-person ride-and-drive events, PSE enabled nearly 500 test drives and engaged over 3,000 consumers in conversation. According to a post-event survey, nearly 80 percent of participants said they are now more likely to purchase an EV.

3. Austin Energy’s initiatives to reduce energy costs for multifamily renters

As the population of Austin, Texas has grown rapidly over the last few years, so has the composition of Austin Energy’s residential customer base. Today, more than 60 percent of the municipal utility’s customers rent, and 51 percent reside in multifamily housing. To help these traditionally hard-to-reach customers reduce their energy usage, Austin Energy has focused on two initiatives in recent years.

The first is an energy efficiency program that provides rebates to multifamily residents for smart thermostats, duct remediation, solar screens, LED lighting, ceiling insulation and more. For income-qualified consumers, rebates cover 100 percent of the costs of the upgrades; however, all multifamily residents have access to 80-percent rebates on these measures.

The second initiative is related to the city’s Energy Conservation Audit & Disclosure (ECAD) Ordinance, which is designed to improve the efficiency of Austin’s buildings and provide transparency to prospective renters on properties’ energy efficiency ratings. Under the ordinance, property owners are required to post the average monthly power bill for each unit on Austin Energy’s online portal and in the property manager’s office. This level of transparency enables consumers to easily factor energy costs into their total cost of living.

These initiatives have substantially increased the energy efficiency of the rental properties in Austin and have resulted in savings for consumers. Since 2017, Austin Energy has served 7,159 low-income units, which is 53 percent of the multifamily program’s total participation, and since 2007, the utility has claimed approximately 50 MW and 119,000 MWh in savings for participants. In addition, Austin Energy has seen considerable progress in conducting audits and delivering rebates to multifamily properties per the ECAD ordinance, and nearly 90 percent of all rentable square footage in Austin is now compliant or exempt from the program.

Moving consumer needs to the foreground

These programs demonstrate that listening to and understanding consumer needs is a necessary step for any utility program that wants to maximize engagement. It is our hope that these three utilities and the other three winners of the 2020 Best Practices Awards will help guide the industry down the path toward customer-centricity. We invite you to nominate an electricity provider for the 2021 Best Practices Awards when nominations open on SECC’s website in August.

Discussions

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

The Up & Go Electric education and outreach campaign focuses on three primary objectives: increasing consumer awareness of electric-vehicle technology and charging options; building relationships with target customer segments to provide education and offers that are more likely be welcomed; and, finally, driving adoption of electric vehicles in Washington State.

This is great to see-- I'll say that when I bought my EV, I found I had to do some digging from my local utility to see what EV programs there were (I did find a rebate for the purchase and a rebate for a home charger), but it wasn't easy and I was not targeted through any outreach. In your review, is my experience more common? You'd think that utilities who have programs to encourage and aid EVs would include an arm of education and awareness, but are more of them missing out on such pillars of their initiatives?

Patty Durand's picture

Thank Patty for the Post!

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