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Three Ways Utilities Are Educating and Engaging Consumers

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You hear it from utility executives at every industry conference: The energy industry is pivoting away from an outdated transactional model toward a future focused on serving the customer.

This transformation has manifested itself in many ways across the country. Utilities are restructuring their organizations, implementing new consumer-facing software, improving methods of engaging with their local communities and more – all with the end goal of better meeting consumers’ evolving needs and wants.

But, while these efforts are all laudable in their aim to shift the focus to the consumer, all are not equally effective at engaging consumers and delivering tangible benefits to them. To determine which of these efforts have been most successful and to provide benchmarks for the industry’s transformation, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) launched its Best Practices Awards program in the fall of 2017.

To date, the awards program has recognized 10 electricity providers – including investor-owned and municipal utilities and retail energy providers from across the United States and Canada – for their efforts in shifting the industry toward a more consumer-focused future. The winners each year are recognized in five categories, and recipients have been highlighted for everything from internal culture transformation to developing groundbreaking voice assistant capabilities for energy-related tasks.

The Best Practices Awards are evidence that the emerging customer-centric focus of today is already yielding benefits for consumers, but we hope that by recognizing these leaders we can further accelerate the industry's progress in this area.

Based on the examples of the winners of the 2019 Best Practices Awards, here are three strategies that electricity providers are using today to better educate and engage consumers:

1. Educate the Next Generation of Energy Consumers

Reaching consumers with pertinent energy efficiency information is not always easy, and even if customers are aware of this information, it’s not always reflected in their behaviors. When Austin Energy was thinking about these issues, they realized that schools could be a valuable starting point for instilling energy-efficient behaviors; reaching students when they’re first becoming aware of energy could have life-long implications.

Hence, Austin Energy developed a five-day curriculum for teachers in the Austin, Texas school district that aligns with the State of Texas’ academics standards and is available at no cost on request. The kit includes student guides and workbooks, teaching materials, quizzes, additional online information and certificates of completion for the students.

In addition, each student receives a box that includes energy-efficient items for their homes, including an LED light bulb, an advanced power strip, a refrigerator thermometer and an air filter whistle, and teachers also receive an investigative kit that allows students to further engage with the curriculum's concepts by using an electricity usage monitor, a light bulb comparison box, a solar-powered model car and more.

While Austin Energy is still rolling the program out across the school district, there have been numerous measures of success already. Eighty percent of students installed the advanced power strip in their home, and two-thirds installed the LED light bulb. Pre- and post-program assessments demonstrated that students have thoroughly absorbed the information on energy efficiency, which will hopefully stay with them throughout their lives.

The first full year of the program had roughly 5,500 participants and saved 518 MWh of electricity. But, for Austin Energy, the main benefits of the program are not necessarily the savings today, but the potential benefits down the road from developing a community of educated energy consumers.

2. Use a Community-Based Approach for Lower-Income Consumers

In addition to the typical issues with engaging energy consumers, lower-income customers often present additional challenges for electricity providers. With a higher level of rentership, these customers don't always have (or feel like they have) the agency to make energy-related home upgrades, and further complicating the matter, lower-income customers trust their current energy providers less than consumers in other income brackets.

New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG), an electric and gas utility owned by AVANGRID, developed a partnership in Tompkins County, New York with two local organizations, Cornell Cooperative Extension and Get Your Green Back, to improve engagement with lower-income consumers. Through the program, local residents could be trained as Energy Navigators and would then provide one-on-one assistance to their neighbors on better managing their energy usage and energy bills.

After undergoing 10 weeks of training, Energy Navigators then helped their neighbors learn how to make environmentally and financial sound energy decisions by providing relevant, unbiased and research-based information and resources. Under the program, NYSEG customers were provided with free home energy audits and direct-install measures, including LED light bulbs, weather-stripping, window kits, refrigerator thermometers and more. Furthermore, the Energy Navigators also helped lower-income customers determine which discount or rebate programs they qualify for and assisted in the completion of paperwork to ensure its accuracy.

From September 2018 to January 2019, NYSEG's program reached and supported hundreds of lower-income customers in Tompkins County, and by analyzing smart meter data, NYSEG will be assessing the results of the energy-efficient upgrades. Although the program only began in late 2018, NYSEG has seen success using the community-based model to reach hard-to-engage consumers and will continue to look at ways to improve it in 2019 and beyond.

3. Utilize a Comprehensive, Multi-Channel Strategy to Get the Word Out

In April 2015, the standalone energy efficiency organization for the Canadian province of New Brunswick moved inside of NB Power, the province’s primary electricity provider. Roughly two years after this merger, NB Power determined that they wanted to revamp their energy efficiency portfolio and transform the ways in which energy efficiency was communicated to customers.

To start, NB Power conducted a baseline awareness survey that found that only 41 percent of their customers were aware of their energy efficiency programs. Due to the transition from a standalone energy efficiency organization to a department within NB Power, some awareness of available energy efficiency programs had been lost.

After updating the programs in their energy efficiency portfolio, NB Power then developed a multi-channel communications strategy to ensure that New Brunswickers were aware of the energy-saving options available to them. First, they completed a full overhaul of their marketing materials, giving everything from the website to print advertisements a unified, modern feel.

NB Power produced local success stories through videos and other media, so that New Brunswickers could relate to and connect with stories of their neighbors saving energy. These stories and other energy efficiency information were pushed to consumers through television, newspaper and radio advertisements, social media and other digital channels, 30-plus community events and more.

About one year after their initial awareness survey, NB Power again surveyed their customer base and found that awareness of energy efficiency programs had risen from 41 percent to over 63 percent (the goal after just one year was to surpass 50 percent). Furthermore, NB Power saw an increase in web traffic of over 300 percent, and enrollments for programs, including Small Business Lighting, Home Energy Reports and Low-Income Savings, all considerably exceeded annual targets.

Through a combination of offering programs customized for various customer subsets and communicating the message through a wide range of channels, NB Power has been able to create considerable hype around energy efficiency in New Brunswick.

Conclusion

Today’s energy consumers aren’t a monolith, and therefore, one solution or strategy won’t work to reach and engage them. Programs need to be designed with specific customer needs in mind, and energy providers need to use a number of communications strategies to ensure that the word is getting out. The examples highlighted here showcase what some electricity providers have implemented to effectively engage subsets of their customer base, and we hope that by recognizing these exemplary programs, we can accelerate the shift toward a more customer-centric energy ecosystem.

To learn more about the above programs and the other recipients of the 2019 Best Practices Awards, you can view our webinar with the winners here

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