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Reimagining the Electricity Bill

image credit: A Well-Designed Electric Bill

Behold the electric bill, a utility’s conduit to the customer. 

A good electric bill makes for a good customer experience. It informs and educates. It also helps keep the lights on, quite literally, at electric utilities by making sure that customers pay their bills on time. 

Sadly, the design of electric bills is mostly an afterthought in an industry steeped with endless jargon and technical terms. Which is a pity, really, because the changing conversations about electricity and climate change demand an informed customer, able to understand the consequences of choices available in the energy marketplace today. 

A quick glance through the paper copy of my electric bill convinced me that utilities could care less about climate change or changes to the grid. I sublet my place from a couple, whose name is on the actual lease and am served by Consolidated Edison (ConEd), not the best of providers when it comes to customer service. My landlords receive an electronic copy of the bill while I get a paper bill. 

An Incomplete Bill 

The paper bill, at least, is woefully inadequate in the information that it provides to customers. It reads like the product of a bygone era of bureaucracy and silos of information. There is no explanation of technical terms used to measure electricity present in the bill. For example, the meaning of “therms” or kWh used to measure natural gas and electricity charges is not clear. We recently shifted to smart meter usage in our neighborhood but there are no comparative feedback charges to make previous usage patterns and their relevance to current statistics clear. 

That is, probably, the biggest problem with the bill. My energy supplier, Viridian Energy, is busy settling a class-action lawsuit in Massachusetts for misleading customers into expensive electricity contracts with high rates. But one wouldn’t know this from my electric bill, which simply mentions a flat rate for Viridian. 

Which brings me to my next point. Electricity generation, supply, and distribution is a multi-step process and each step has implications on the overall price charged from customers. Going through the electric bill, however, it would be difficult to get a sense of the complex changes occurring in the industry today.   

Why is this important? It has a direct effect on the overall bill. When I asked my landlord about Viridian’s rates, he said they had gone up recently (because the company had begun using more nuclear power, according to my landlord) but he wasn’t sure about the actual numbers. A graphic or text note comparing rates from the previous month or year will help customers keep a tab on the increase (or decrease) in their energy costs.   

Finally, there’s the length of the bill. Information about my charges is spread across five pages and interspersed with . The organization is haphazard and the actual amount and payment date is not immediately visible. Contact information and energy efficiency tips are spread across the five pages. Paper may be going out of fashion but it is much more effective at capturing audience attention as compared to online ads and webpages. To that extent, bad design is a wasted opportunity for utilities to engage with customers. 

How to Improve an Electric Bill? 

Design thinking can help improve the electric bill experience. For the most part, the electric bill is a source of information for customers. Hence, better information design will help them accomplish their task, of paying the bill or making necessary changes to their consumption, easy. In this context, it is necessary to include as many graphics or pictorial representations as possible. Electric bills are not works of art and have a utilitarian function, at best. Information snapshots help get them out of the way.  

A 2011 ACEEE study recommended several measures to improve electric bills. For example, it could include peer comparisons to induce savings in energy consumption. Gamifying the consumption of energy through competition can be an especially effective tactic to spur consumer action. Already there are apps in the energy marketplace which utilize this approach. 

Another important feature that is missing is the facility to forecast energy usage based on previous trends. Verizon does this with my phone bill and, thanks to smart grids, I see no reason why utilities have not adopted this practice. The forecasting mechanism could also serve as a reminder for energy efficiency and marketing of practices and products that will help consumers conserve energy. It will be a value-added service for customers because it will help them monthly expenses. 

The ACEEE study also recommended including energy efficiency information (tips and contacts) within the electric bill. I would also add information about smart meters and grids. As we hurtle towards an era of bidirectional exchange of information, it is important for consumers to understand the transformations taking place in energy systems.

Rakesh  Sharma's picture

Thank Rakesh for the Post!

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