The US electrical grid is often referenced as the greatest machine ever built. Its evolution into a Smart Grid and an Internet of things will improve overall grid operations, reduce inefficiencies, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve reliability, and give consumers more control over their consumption of electricity.
Unfortunately, these benefits are not being communicated to consumers. Here are the reasons why there’s a communications gap today:
1. Smart Grid benefits aren’t easily distilled into soundbites. The “feature/benefit” statements are complex and require a level of energy literacy that doesn’t exist today.
2. Most consumers don’t see many of the Smart Grid projects other than smart meters. Utilities are busy integrating renewable energy sources into the grid (one of the primary benefits of the Smart Grid), but these are hidden on rooftops, or remotely sited miles from population centers. Synchrophasors are another example of a technology that improves and enhances existing transmission and distribution operations, but again, are largely invisible to consumers.
3. For some utilities, Smart Grid initiatives require multi-year deployments before consumer benefits can be realized. For instance, smart meters will allow price signals to be communicated to consumers. This information lets consumers participate in programs that may not be available today – because current technologies don’t support them. These programs can save consumers money by reducing their overall energy bills and reducing CO2 emissions.
4. Many Smart Grid benefits require a combination of technology and policy introductions. In the example above, regulated utilities need approval of their state public utility commissions (PUCs) to change rate plans, so the technology needs the regulatory policy as much as some regulatory policies need new technologies.
5. Deploying technology is made more difficult when it is visible and disruptive to consumers. My utility had successfully installed smart meters across a number of zip codes, and then there was the Central Valley. Timing is everything, comics will tell you. Smart meter installations coincided with electricity rate increases, which coincided with the onset of extremely hot weather in that region. Talk about a perfect storm. Once the initial negative perceptions had been established, every other smart meter criticism, and even unfounded fears, had a chance to stick.
6. Investor-owned utilities, which serve the majority of Americans (other utilities are municipally-owned, cooperatives owned by their members, or are Federally-owned) aren’t skilled at persuasive or educational communication with consumers. These utilities are very skilled at communicating with regulators. That’s one of the tradeoffs of being a regulated business, but it is an unfortunate skills deficit at a time when utilities need to be on the top of their game in consumer communications.
So how can this communications gap be addressed? One of the most interesting initiatives is an Energy Literacy project sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE). The purpose of this project is to define what it means to be “energy literate” and to identify the essential understandings that underlie this literacy. This multiphase project starts with the development of a guiding document for context, background and definitions. This document should be completed sometime in the summer of 2011. The project will also develop the principles and conceptual foundation to build energy literacy in US citizens. Like other federal government initiatives in the Smart Grid sector, this one has a collaborative process to get feedback from the public as well as from a number of selected agencies. Right now, the focus is on developing the principles, each of which will act as an overarching category with 5-10 concepts (fundamentals) supporting each principle. There is a wiki that is available for public review and feedback, and it can be accessed here. (Energy Literacy guiding document is expected to be competed by Summer)
This is an admirable initiative, and one that I fully support, but it will take time for the results to be launched into energy studies curricula across the country. In the meantime, what can utilities do to hone their skills in consumer communications?
Start with the basics – make sure that the employees in each utility have a thorough understanding of the Smart Grid and what it means. Sadly, a recent research study found that the most common touchpoint for utilities and consumers – the contact centers – had significant gaps of knowledge about utility Smart Grid projects. When asked to identify any implementations of Smart Grid technology; provide information about the Smart Grid or smart meters; or deliver information about plans to deploy them, just a third of the 100 utility contact centers could even provide information about any Smart Grid projects. Contact center agents have the opportunity, if given the proper training and management for new call metrics, to deliver extremely meaningful information to consumers and eliminate the FUD factor that now swirls around smart meters.
Consistently deliver Smart Grid benefit statements on websites and via social media channels, which are new communications channels for most utilities. The content on websites should mirror and reinforce the messaging provided by contact center agents. Make sure that linemen and meter installers also have the information to provide to consumers they encounter as they are out doing their work. Every employee who has the possibility of interacting with consumers needs to receive a basic amount of education about the Smart Grid and its benefits, and the projects their utility has underway or plans to deploy soon. These are steps that can be taken now by utilities, and can help to elevate the energy literacy, or at least the electricity literacy, of the overall population.