EcoGrid EU part 2: Lessons on engaging customers via the smart grid

Published: Tue 07 Jan 2014
A blog entry by Smart Grid Watch

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On the Danish island of Bornholm, the Ecogrid EU smart grid demonstration project is providing valuable lessons in how utilities can engage customers to help everyone gain maximum benefits from smart grid technology.

A 10 December IEEE Tech Insider webinar offered an overview of this project, including what Østkraft (the Danish utility based in Bornholm, which is in charge of Ecogrid EU) has been learning about engaging residential and business customers in the smart grid.

Nearly 10% of all households on the island are participating -- an effort that involves not just the installation of smart meters, but also sensors, appliance controllers, and communications equipment in participants' homes and businesses. Persuading residents to participate means learning how to clearly communicate the potential benefits of the smart grid to end users -- while also managing expectations.

Price signals are a key aspect of customer communication and engagement. Ecogrid EU includes two types of web portals: one for viewing their energy usage, current cost, and trends. The other lets users specify control setpoints and actions for key home appliances. How users opt to control their homes in response to prices signals completes that communication loop for utilities.

Consumers like lower bills -- so not surprisingly, most Ecogrid EU customers indicated that lowering energy bills was a primary motivation for joining this project. But Maja Bendtsen, Head of Projects for Østkraft, pointed out that delivering this benefit isn't always easy.

Bendtsen noted that in Denmark, per-kWh prices paid by end users are comprised mostly of fixed components, such as taxes; actual energy consumption only accounts for about 20% of the typical Danish energy bill. This means that even when customers act to reduce their overall energy use, or to shift usage to off-peak times, they still may not save very much money.

This poses a challenge: If energy bill savings might not seem significant, what sorts of financial incentives might utilities offer customers that would make it worth their while to get more involved with actively managing their energy use? As EcoGrid EU continues, Østkraft will likely experiment on this front.

Fortunately, engaging customers in the smart grid isn't all about reducing energy bills. Bendtsen noted that on Bornholm, many end users simply desired access to better technology. For instance, it can be easier to control the temperature of individual rooms in a home via the EcoGrid web portal, rather than using the limited and often cryptic built-in interfaces of typical home thermostats. Also, customers can use the web portal to remotely monitor conditions at home.

Bendtsen also observed that the current need for further development is needed in some types of equipment controls can make it more challenging to engage customers in smart grid efforts.

For instance, air-to-air heat pumps are common on Bornholm -- and for many households, a heat pump is their largest source of energy consumption. However, Østkraft was unable to identify a satisfactory control solution for heat pumps, and so was unable to involve most heat pumps in the Ecogrid project. This proved confusing and disappointing to some customers.

"We're learning a lot about how to talk to customers about what is and is not possible in terms of control at this point. Sometimes it requires some explaining and convincing," Bendtsen said.

WATCH THIS ARCHIVED WEBINAR NOW: Integrating Information Technology with Operational Technology in the Smart Grid: The EcoGrid EU Launch (10 Dec. 2013)

Also, see answers by Andreas Arendt of Siemens Smart Grid to questions posed by webinar participants, at the bottom of this updated post about the 10 December webinar.

See part 1: How EcoGrid EU integrates IT, OT and energy markets