Posted to Energy Central in the Customer Care Group
Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Jul 19, 2022
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Every quarter, Energy Central seeks to recognize National Get to Know Your Customers Day. This quarter, it falls on July 21 and so in advance of that, I wanted to kick the following question out to our community:

What information do you wish you had about your utility customers? What would you better be able to deliver with more accurate, complete, and/or granular information? 

And as you see others answer this question, if you have ways you're already getting that information and leveraging it for better service then please weigh in and let your peers in the community learn from you!

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I think that as forecasting electric needs becomes more complicated, greater information about distributed energy resources (DER) would be helpful before the fact, not after. And, as rate structures become more intertwined with smart metering, what would incentivize residential customers to move to time of day rates? I have seen mandatory "opt-out" of time of day rate structures, but that still doesn't answer the question. What would be an effective way to instruct customers on the tools they can use to manage their electricity use. What type of apps could utilities provide to tap into the internet of things to help them get interested?

 

Surveys would help, perhaps workshops, but the majority of customers move along in the lane they're used to.

Jim Andrews's picture
Jim Andrews on Jul 25, 2022

Your CIS and MDM have the customer and energy use to model what the customer's bill would be using a TOU rate.  If the customer would save money, an email / text through your customer engagement platform would be a good start.  If the customer is not signed up for self-service, you can add a message to the customer's bill saying what their savings would be under a TOU rate.

If your goal is to shift their peak load, then a different type of messaging is needed. Perhaps a survey to those customers is in order to determine their energy usage habits.

It is very difficult to get the level of distribution investment right.  Due to capital bias, for-profit utilities are always ready to over-invest -- in reliability improvements, in DER accommodation, and in load capacity.  I would therefore be very interested in two questions. The first thing I would like to know: What are customers (by type) willing to pay (in percent of rate increase) for various levels of reliability improvement (outage frequency and duration).  This cannot be answered in a single question, but requires dedicated "willingness to pay" research designed to a determine the price elasticity of demand curve for reliability improvements among various customer classes.  This information can be used to determine the point at which the value of reliability improvements is no longer worth the rate increases required to secure that level of reliability (in accordance with the law of diminishing returns).

The second thing I would want to know is customers' propensity to buy certain types of loads (electric vehicles, heat pumps) and generation (pv solar, batteries) in the next 2 years, 5 years, and 10 years by customer type. Again, such information could help inform the appropriate level of investment in DER accommodation and load capacity that might be needed in the future, an the timing of that need.  As utilities in this day and age should know customers' locations on circuits/sections, data by circuit/section could be extremely helpful in load and DER forecasting.

Let's get practical folks!  Between natural gas prices, inflation, and other drivers of electric bill increases, now is not the time to be over-investing in our distribution grid (resulting in further rate increases that customers and economies are better off without if avoidable).

 

Great and timely question! I am not a utility employee, but have been around this space for over three decades, so a few observations...

Utilities have more info about their customers now than they have at any time in the past. Energy usage, payment history, program preferences, and digital customer portal data are a few examples of this. Add in other sources like survey data and social media data, and the utility starts to have a more complete picture of its customers on an individual basis and in the aggregate, enabling better/deeper engagement on issues impacting its customers.

One area where that I believe utility leaders are looking to get an even deeper level of insight and engagement and providing information that utility leaders "wish" they had that will prove to be difficult to execute is in the energy disaggregation area. This is impressive technology that can not only yield insights, but also can enable automated actions. This can take demand response programs to new levels of effectiveness.

The challenges will not be technical, but social and legal. Most utility residential customers appreciate the availability of different programs to help manage their energy costs and some even take this to the level of wanting to take part in addressing climate issues, but I believe that most people will draw the line at the level of what I'll call "control intimacy" from their utility. Cycling an air conditioner during a summer peak is one thing; automated control or even signaling about when to run or not run appliances inside the home is another matter. Many people will legitimately ask, "if you are controlling my washer and dryer today, what will you be controlling next year or next week?" 

One other concern is that people are used to a very simple relationship with their utility: I pay my bill, you keep the lights on. This is evolving as people become more aware of energy issues and as many customers become part of the DER-rich energy environment, but "reaching" into the home will be viewed as an entirely new relationship with their utility that will, for lack of a better term, creep a lot of people out.

There might be some cultures where government mandates will override any privacy concerns from the citizens (the Covid pandemic is a good example of this where some countries had draconian shutdowns and other measures) but for societies that value freedom and privacy rights, energy disaggregation will likely be a line that is drawn. The exception will be people that are OK with this and can opt in to energy disaggregation programs, much like many have opted into air condition cycling programs. This is a win-win.

To borrow a phrase, just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do something.