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Talking to customers: desirable?

One of the debates in the power industry focuses on whether utility executives really want to understand their customers or merely deal with them. 

On one level, ambivalence would be understandable. One might just hear a lot of vociferous complaints and sitting around, getting lambasted, doesn't sound like fun. Or a "discussion" could be just a jumble of unrelated comments, difficult to mine for advantage. 

But what if executives were offered a rational, workable process, sponsored by a reputable organization? Would utility executives be interested in learning about the communities they serve and how those communities see their energy future? Just what is expected of a utility in the 21st century?

And if such an opportunity were offered, would utility executives actually consider integrating what they've heard with their business model and technology roadmap?

These are open questions, worthy of debate. But there's a time limit on reaching an answer, because other forces are at play, which should sharpen one's sense of urgency. A groundswell is gaining force that may derail any such opportunities in the future. 

That groundswell is a market-driven interest by end-use customers in non-utility power sources and opportunities that avoid the vagaries of grid-based power. That includes, in no particular order, cheaper solar panels, a move to produce and consume DC power, solar gardens, home-based energy efficiency measures, municipalization by communities and a host of third parties vying for utility customers' attention. Some of those forces could be beneficial to utilities, others disruptive. But utilities may not seize the opportunity to shape the outcome. 

Perhaps that casts new light on the original question: do utility executives really want to understand their customers or merely deal with them? That may depend on whether those executives want to lead change or fight it. 

Enter: Green2Growth, a model for constructive engagement  initiated by the local utility, National Grid,  partnering with the City of Worcester, Mass., that places grid modernization in the context of a sustainable energy future, which the city believes is the basis for economic growth. Videos and a local resource map give a sense of what's happening in the region.

The summit was facilitated by David Cooperrider, a professor at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, using a methodology for positive change he developed known as "Appreciative Inquiry."

Executives and line employees from National Grid participated with 300 residents in Worcester's community summit in fall 2011, which was encouraged by the state's Green Communities Act of 2008. See the entire roster of steering committee participants here. 

Cheri Warren, vice president for asset management at National Grid and Wanda Reder, vice president, power systems services, S&C Electric Co. persuaded the IEEE Power and Energy Society to commit funding and provide tools and resources so the process in Worcester can be replicated in other regions and involve IEEE member volunteers in the event and post-summit initiatives. The realization of specific projects and post-summit activities that support them are aided by program manager, Judith Schwartz of To the Point, who also was part of the Green2Growth team.

As I understand it, a utility signs up for the IEEE program and partners with local municipalities with active sustainability programs. A steering committee including civic and business leaders and community-based organizations is formed to design the theme and priorities for consideration. The process leads to a multi-day summit and outcomes actually include newly galvanized stakeholders alert to future possibilities and specific projects that could realize those possibilities continuing beyond the event.

This process could take myriad forms. In Worcester's case, National Grid listened, re-crafted a proposal for a fully integrated distribution automation-meter-and-home-energy-management pilot, planned for 15,000 locations in Worcester and got approval from the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. By participating in the Green2Growth Summit in Worcester, National Grid managed to win over local allies for its pilot.

I don't know National Grid's precise motivation, though I don't question them. But I do know that many frustrated citizens in Massachusetts continue to push for legislation that allows the state's cities and towns to municipalize. (See "Outages Drive Smart Grid, and Muni Legislation.") 

Space doesn't permit me to hash it all out here and I'm not one to extol the virtues of much beyond hard-nosed, critical thinking, wherever it leads. But it strikes me that this process could be used to genuinely align utility projects with community aspirations. Or it could be used cynically to pay more high-profile lip service to whatever the heck those dang customers want. 

In any case, utility executives might want to look for themselves and determine whether there's something for them here. Can they afford the risk that the customers they serve would prefer a non-utility alternative? Or might they learn things face-to-face that they won't get from arm's length customer segmentation studies out of their market research department?

Your customers might just derail your best-laid plans. That could be destructive. Or it could be the best thing that ever happened to your future as a power utility. 

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily