Customer outreach is by now understood to be a key component of any smart grid project but little information is available on different strategies and best practices. Now four smart grid projects representing different regions, business models, and objectives, have led to some general lessons around the importance and challenges of customer communications.
Smart Grid Investment Grant support
The four projects, all supported with Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) funding, are as follows:
Reliant Energy Retail Services, one of about 100 retail electricity providers (REP) in Texas, reached 600,000 customers out of a target market of about 625,000 during its SGIG project with smart meter-enabled products and services designed to enhance customer capabilities and encourage energy efficiency and load management responses. Reliant used many types of advertising and promotions, including customized web portals, software tools, and social media.
Entergy New Orleans, a subsidiary of Entergy Corporation, served about 150,000 urban customers at the start of the SGIG project in 2010. About 90% of these were residential, and many were low income. ENO’s project involved smart meters, in-home displays, programmable communicating thermostats and web portals to support evaluation of customer education, critical peak rebates and air conditioning load controls for reducing customer electricity consumption and peak demands.
Sioux Valley Energy, an electric cooperative serving approximately 21,000 customers in 7 counties in South Dakota and Minnesota, undertook evaluation of a critical peak pricing pilot during summer 2011 and a critical peak rebate pilot during summer 2012. The pilots included more than 800 mostly residential participants during each summer period. Communications activities included day-ahead notification for more than 35 critical peak events by emails, text messages, in-home display messages, and phone calls.
Central Maine Power, which serves more than 600,000 customers in the state, in its project involved a web portal for customers to monitor their electricity consumption and costs, and a pilot “Bill Alert” service offered to 38,000 residential customers. More than 3,200 customers enrolled to receive weekly updates by email, text message, or phone call with billing information on their electricity use and cost.
Customer communication activities
Three communications activities are particularly noteworthy for the opportunities they provide in addressing specific customer needs. Major findings on these activities from the four SGIG supported projects are as follows:
Customer education strategies
● Smart meter and customer system programs involve complicated equipment and require customers to “climb learning curves” that require extensive communication and education. Utilities must be prepared to dedicate sufficient resources to the trial-and-error of the education process.
● It is essential to clearly notify customers of their bill status if they are on prepayment plans or when “critical peak events” occur. Cell phone text messaging is among the most popular and effective means of customer notification.
● There is no one-size-fits-all approach to customer education. Utilities used multiple communication channels, including text messages, emails, apps, web portals, telephone calls, bill inserts, and social media.
Community outreach and public meetings
● Community outreach and public meetings are particularly important in the early stages of smart metering deployments to educate local officials about utility plans and to hear feedback from the public on issues and concerns. Early outreach improved overall community approval and meter adoption.
● Reaching low-income customers is a special challenge that can be addressed successfully by involving local community and non-profit organizations in program planning and implementation.
Call centres, web portals, and customer devices
● Utilities are making call centres available 24/7 and designing web pages to give customers quick access to information about their consumption and costs. Customers want rapid and often self-guided access to the information they need.
● Customers generally like their in-home devices and manufacturers are rapidly making changes as projects learn more about both needed and unneeded features.
Future outlook on customer outreach
Customer communications will continue to be a critical ingredient for successful grid modernization as utilities roll out new load management and rate programs that require active customer participation and decision-making. [See e.g. Engerati-Consumer Engagement Will See Demand Response Take-Off] Utilities and other entities continue to explore innovative mechanisms and media to communicate more efficiently and increase customer understanding and engagement. As these technologies and programs are deployed in greater numbers, continued efforts to advance interoperability standards and cybersecurity protections will be a top-priority need. Further progress is also needed to address public concerns about data privacy.
Challenges also remain in designing smart metering and customer system programs that have favorable impacts on “vulnerable” customer populations such as those with lower incomes and the elderly. Results from ENO’s SGIG project show successful outcomes when utilities partner closely with groups that have experience in serving vulnerable customers.
Most utilities are proceeding at a deliberate pace with smart grid deployments. The focus now is on identifying cost-effective applications, educating utility executives and state policymakers about grid impacts and benefits, and sharing lessons learned to identify best practices for smart grid projects and customer communications.