- Jan 28, 2021 5:15 pm GMT
Load Shed in the Time of COVID-19
This article is republished from the August 2020 issue of Strategies, AESP’s exclusive magazine for members.
by Lenore Zeuthen
Grid-watchers know that, in response to COVID-19, state shutdowns have slowed C&I operations while boosting residential energy consumption. And while systemwide load is down, utilities are still calling demand response (DR) events this summer.
This calls for a delicate balancing act. C&I customers need to shed load when they rely on incentives as part of their revenue stream; residential customers are under stress either working from home (possibly with children bouncing off the walls) or not working at all; many SMB customers are worried about survival, not kW savings.
As a DSM professional who focuses on customer engagement, I wanted to find out how my DR colleagues are adjusting their program delivery and innovating for their customers. A big thank you to all who generously shared their experiences and insight for this article.
Not surprisingly, across the country direct installations have been paused and service appointments curtailed. DR managers, however, are pivoting to target different customer subsets.
According to DSM product manager Susan Marinelli, PEPCO and Delmarva Power shifted focus to their Bring your own Thermostats (BYOT) programs. Her outreach goals include increasing customer enrollments, awareness of peak times and sign-ups for “thermostat optimization” features to bolster energy savings.
Social media campaigns – critical for this segment - resumed in June after having been delayed in favor of communicating bill assistance measures and responding to customer anxiety about possible service interruption. Manufacturers also launched their recruitment efforts in June, so customers are now receiving emails and in-app prompts, and can enroll instantly.
Portland General Electric’s (PGE) product manager for multi-family DR, Rebecca Brisson, is hoping to resume installing water heater controls in July. In contrast to the usual 500-600 controls installed monthly, none have gone in since March.
Because tenants have the right to opt out of the program or turn away an installer, Brisson has adjusted her estimated installs down approximately 35% from pre-pandemic levels. To offset this decrease, she is prioritizing larger complexes, which will serve the most customers.
Customer and vendor safety, of course, is still the primary concern. Brisson has developed new safety protocols and messaging with PGE’s implementation contractor, legal and safety teams, and corporate communications. While the collateral primarily targets property managers, tenants will receive door hangers, an email and a “reply” flyer to post on their doors.
Utilities such as CPS Energy, Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) and PGE are leveraging technology to provide real-time problem solving during social distancing. CPS Energy is offering remote coaching to its C&I customers, and both BGE and PGE have launched tools to help customers install their own thermostats.
“We quickly developed a virtual thermostat installation service for customers enrolled in our PeakRewards program, who - provided they feel comfortable – can now install our utility-provided thermostat,” reports Dana DeRemigis, senior program manager at BGE.
PGE is using video conferencing and targeting customers who have already signed up for direct installation. Brenda Hunt, residential segment manager explained, “We’re taking a concierge approach…assessing their comfort level with technology, and their interest in installing their own thermostat.” Customers have the thermostats delivered to their homes, while contractors are on standby with PPE and safety protocols.
PEPCO and Delmarva Power continued their pre-season readiness plans, but they limited inspections to outdoor switches and relied on AMI data to conduct their annual quality assurance tests.
Call centers remain vital. PEPCO and Delmarva have changed their technical assistance to over-the-phone resolution. If the issue cannot be resolved, the utilities (both are Exelon companies) will send a technician to the premise for a repair call. Again, safety being critical, technicians use masks and gloves and social distance while in the home.
Program managers are working with corporate communications to prioritize company messaging. Inherent to this is having empathy for the customer experience and being able to anticipate their pain points.
Several utilities paused their DR marketing in early spring but have since resumed. Duke Energy has suspended all outreach and retention communications for its residential programs. Melissa Knous, program manager for Duke Energy’s Florida residential DR (emergency events only), explained that the company wants to be sensitive to its customers’ personal concerns and also appreciates that they are likely – and understandably - distracted.
Conversely, Jon Hilowitz, manager of Orange and Rockland Utilities’ customer energy services, spoke of near daily communication with O&R’s commercial customers, i.e. aggregators and direct participants. As a direct response to COVID-19, O&R made emergency changes to the tariffs governing their commercial DR programs. Participants were allowed to change their pledges as late as June 1 (for a July 1 start date). Thus, it has been necessary to check on customers’ activity and to ensure their load pledges are accurate.
Andrea Simmonsen, program specialist at Idaho Power, also spoke of recent communications with C&I customers to determine the amount of demand reduction they are comfortable nominating. The tariffs for each of Idaho Power’s programs require at least three events per season, and the utility anticipates doing so while being mindful of the impact to customers.
Seattle City Light chose to table their introductory DR program – one of four rate pilots – to refocus on emergency response programs and recovery planning. “Because DR requires so much customer education, now is not the right time to start that conversation. COVID-19 has to take precedence,” said Madeline Kostic, senior program manager.
BGE has previously surveyed customers and factored what they learned into their crisis messaging strategy. Dana DeRemigis told us, “We decided to take a broad approach to our messaging so rather than referencing the pandemic, we are using statements like ‘BGE is here to help and will continue to provide customers with energy and money-saving programs.’ ”
Similarly, PGE is emphasizing incentives and energy savings in a time of economic uncertainty for many customers. Brenda Hunt indicated they are “enhancing educational materials to set customers up for success” and in particular, are providing tools to BDR customers to better understand where in their home that their energy consumption is highest.
This utility is also producing family-friendly virtual events and competitions, including raffles, to drive customer engagement throughout the summer and not just at the beginning of the season.
Justin Chamberlain, DR and EE manager at CPS Energy, is expanding the use of local TV stations in both Spanish and English to announce DR events and thank residential customers for participating. This summer, CPS Energy is expanding its program messaging to reinforce customer participation in the DR events.
Jon Hilowitz of O&R shared that his utility is creating a video campaign addressing residential customers and their new reality of working from home – most likely with children alongside them – during the summer.
Staying ahead of the curve
In talking to DR managers at eight different utilities across the country, I got a snapshot view of how COVID-19 is impacting summer program operations. While direct installations are on hold, managers have shifted to BYOT and larger MFs. Just as employers are adopting video technology to create virtual work environments, program managers are using these tools to coach DR participation and guide self-installations. And as always, empathy for the customer experience is paramount to program communications.
Lenore Zeuthen is an independent consultant with Zeuthen Management Solutions Inc, specializing in customer engagement for DSM programs, products and services.
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