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The customer: still utilities' ally to lose

There's good news and, of course, its corollary, bad news, in recent consumer perception studies.

Consumer awareness of smart grid and smart meters remains low, those familiar with the terms have positive or neutral impressions and, when presented with smart grid benefits, two important ones are popular.

The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) earlier this year released its recent findings, which we'll take a minute to consider.

If after nearly two years of what appeared to be very negative media around smart meters and, to some degree, federally funded stimulus projects relating to the grid, there remains little awareness of those two topics, perhaps those making the noise have had little impact. Unfortunately, that includes positive messages, presumably including utility-sponsored communication and education on the topic.

But there's some cause for optimism, in that respondents in the SGCC surveys said they favored smart grid benefits such as fewer outages of shorter duration and—get this—that smart grid would reduce greenhouse gases by easing the connection of renewable energy to the grid.

This appears to corroborate recent findings by the Brookings Institute, a center-left think tank, which has found a rebound in the number of Americans who accept that the global temperature is rising. The rebound reached the mid-way point between the high point of such beliefs, registered in late 2008, and the low point, in 2010.

The exploration of customer interest in and satisfaction with prepaid electricity accounts comes in the context of prepayment options in other industries, where it has become relatively common, particularly favored by younger Americans, ages 18-30. 

Prepayment of electricity accounts holds obvious attractions for utilities in the form of cash flow, fewer collection actions and disconnections. For consumers, for whom it remains in the realm of an opt-in option, it serves as a crude form of energy use feedback and energy budgeting.

EcoAlign recently looked at prepay electricity markets in Texas and Arizona, currently the two largest such markets in the United States. In these two states, prepayment remains nascent, but the survey found about 7 percent of Texans use prepay, while that figure is 10 percent in Arizona.

Because prepaid accounts have built-in feedback loops—usage gets communicated back to the user via text message, email, the Web or an in-home display—they have the potential to cut overall energy use. Salt River Project's M-Power prepaid program in 2010 reported an average decrease of 12 percent among prepaid customers.

The top line findings of a recent EcoAlign survey are that customers associate prepay with better management and control of their account, with the potential to save money, though the potential negatives include uncertainty around pricing and the potential for fees or overpayment. The biggest concern, expressed by more than half the respondents, is service disconnection when a prepaid balance runs out. Half of respondents don't know whether prepay is more or less expensive than post-paid accounts. (Some industry discussion has focused on whether prepaid service should be less expensive, as a matter of financial fairness and to entice greater participation.)

 Previous EcoAlign survey results and Salt River Project's prepay program were detailed in "Slice of Electricity Consumers Favor Prepayment" and "Survey: Electricity Prepayment Moving Mainstream."

Finally, Pike Research recently released the results of its "Energy & Environment Consumer Survey" around clean energy concepts. Better than half of respondents positively viewed solar energy, wind energy, hybrid vehicles, electric cars and natural gas cars. Less than half of respondents had favorable or very favorable views of "clean coal," nuclear power, biofuels, smart meters and smart grid, among other concepts.

Pike's findings on unfavorable impressions were topped by carbon offsets/credits, nuclear power and cap and trade. Only 9 percent had strongly unfavorable or somewhat unfavorable impressions of smart meters and fewer—6 percent—held unfavorable views of smart grid.

Yet those who said they were unfamiliar with smart grid comprised about 30 percent of respondents and those unfamiliar with smart meters comprised about 28 percent.

As one writer who has made much of the ludicrous demonization of smart meters, warning that it threatens to infect the general public, and castigated utilities for failing to educate customers about grid modernization, the results cited here make me something of a Chicken Little. On the other hand, these survey results are snapshots, not trends. It would be faulty logic to cite these results to justify continued lethargy in making the case for investments in grid modernization. People understand that investments in the grid could generate greater reliability and they're aware of environmental drivers, including global warming.

Complacency in the face of opportunity doesn't strike me as much of a strategy.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

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