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Customer Engagement for Load Management Initiatives: Exclusive Interview with Andrea Simmonsen of Idaho Power Company

Andrea Simmonsen

As demand-side practices and load management become more commonplace across the utility industry, sharing lessons learned and roadmaps for the future becomes increasingly critical. While much of the focus, whether R&D or program-specific, has been on the technology that’s enabling this change, customer engagement is arguably the most important aspect of any load management plan. Without customer understanding and buy-in, all the work on load management programs will be for naught, so the human and behavioral aspects must be at the forefront of any related conversation.

This focus on customer engagement is what drives Andrea Simmonsen, Program Specialist at Idaho Power Company and Co-Chair of the Customer Engagement Interest Group for the Peak Load Management Alliance (PLMA). At the upcoming 40th PLMA Conference, Andrea will be diving into these topics with peers across the utility industry to identify what progress has been made with customer engagement and plot out a course for the field moving into 2020.

To give a sneak preview of the topics of discussions attendees of the 40th PLMA Conference can expect, Andrea was gracious enough to answer some questions for me to share with the Energy Central community:

Matt Chester: Can you start by giving a bit of background of who you are, what you work on at Idaho Power in your current role, and how you got involved with PLMA as a Co-Chair of the customer engagement interest group?

Andrea Simmonsen: I’m a Program Specialist for Idaho Power, which just means I build and manage programs for our residential customers. I’ve worked for Idaho Power for over 21 years in a variety of roles, from Customer Service Representative to Technical Advisor to Meter Process Specialist, finally moving into Demand Side Management. In my current role I manage two programs: a residential demand response (DR) program with air conditioners and an energy audit program. I also can work on some special, short-term projects like tiny house, corporate communications, research microgrids, DR with electric vehicles, and more.

In 2016, Sharyn Barata of Opinion Dynamics, Meridith Nierenberg, at that time of Orange and Rockland, but now of West Monroe Partners, and I felt there was a need for an interest group focused on customer engagement. I would say Sharyn was the driving force. We proposed the new group and the reasons for it, and the board approved. Later, Meridith changed companies and rolled off, and Scott Jarman of Austin Energy and Tracy Schmidt of Tennessee Valley Authority joined. After this Fall’s PLMA conference, Sharyn and I will both roll off. This will leave an opening if someone is interested in stepping up to help co-chair.

 

MC: The mission of PLMA is to bring professionals working in load management together to share lessons learned and advance the field more widely. How critical is customer engagement in this process, especially compared with technological or market solutions? And do you think utilities today are prioritizing the customer engagement side of things as much as they should be?

AS: It's one of the legs of the stool, and without it we fall. It’s awesome to have advancing technology or solutions, especially ones that make it easy and seamless for customers to participate, but we need to remember there is a customer on the other side. In a world where everyone is bombarded by information from every side, it’s essential to focus on customer engagement to be able to message your program in a way that is easy for the customer to understand and see the benefit to them and also desirable in which to participate. Meeting them when and where they will be open to the message is part of it. Having the opportunity to share learnings between utilities, practitioners, vendors, and other stakeholders on what does and doesn’t work helps us all improve our programs. 

I think today there is more emphasis on customer engagement than in the recent past, but there is always room for improvement. Customer expectations are growing as all industries improve their engagement techniques, and utilities can’t afford to be left behind.

 

MC: Programs in DR and energy efficiency are indeed advancing because the new technical solutions are enabling them to become more usable by customer-facing programs. What do you expect to be some of the most exciting new topics discussed as this upcoming 40th PLMA Conference that weren’t yet possible to really dive into in previous years?

AS: We’ve started to see Electric Vehicle DR, and we’ll be seeing more of that, including in the Customer Engagement session on Monday: Back to the Future – Engaging EVs with DR. We’re seeing more DR related to gas, microgrids are becoming a hot topic, and we continuing to see integrating DERs to be an important issue.

MC: As professionals gather at the PLMA conference, they’ll be bringing the perspective of potential challenges and solutions from their specific situation, which of course varies by geography, demographic need, resource availability, and more. Do you think that the challenges you face coming from Idaho are more similar than not to those faced by your peers in different regions or do you have more in common than differences?

AS: Both - it just depends on what aspect we’re talking about!  Many utilities I talk to are continuing to grow their DR program, where we’ve been long on resources and have been in more of a holding pattern since 2013. At the same time, the wording or method of reaching out that appealed to the customers of one utility may be just as appealing to customers in my area.  The size of the utility and the resources available can be another big difference, as are rates and what numbers are needed to be cost-effective.

 

MC: Often in these interviews I’ll ask about where you see the future of load management is going to be in the next 5-10 years, and I’d still love to hear that. But I’ll add on a part 2 that puts a twist on it: If you had a crystal ball and you could see into the future those 5-10 years and ask one question about how the market has progressed, what would you most want to know?

AS: I believe technology, and our intelligence in using it, will continue to advance to where it truly is seamless for the customer, utility, grid, etc., and peaks are shaved and valleys filled in and DERs aren’t disruptive, but part of the whole mix that combine to make the system run smoothly. My question for those future people would be what is the single biggest thing you did to earn your customer’s loyalty and support, and have them see you as their trusted energy advisor?

 

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If you’re interested in hearing more about Andrea’s insights into customer engagement for load management programs, be sure to find her at the 40th PLMA Conference taking place in St. Petersburg, Florida, from November 4 to 6. You can check out the agenda and register for the conference here.

Matt Chester's picture

Thank Matt for the Post!

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 17, 2019 3:07 pm GMT

Hard not to recognize "Load Management Leadership" as nothing but a way to shift responsibility for providing society with a reliable supply of electricity from a utility to its customers.

It's a responsibility utilities accepted almost a century ago as part of the deal granting them monopoly status. That they're subtley attempting to renege on this deal now, after benefiting from a competition-free business environment for so long, could be expected. Why? Because that's what investor-owned corporations do. It should be resisted by customers at every turn, because it's only the beginning.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 17, 2019 5:42 pm GMT

Times are a-changing, and whereas utilities have been pretty change-resistant in that century you mention, that isn't the case anymore. New technologies are available, new needs are arising, and finding ways to adapt in the most cost effective manner (for both utilities and customers) is a good thing. Sure, utilities can ignore load management and other demand response or energy efficiency programs (which their customers are asking for, by the way), but that means that the better solution will be to build out new generation-- generation that's likely to come from fossil fuels and thus add to global emissions, and generation that is much more expensive on a per kWh basis than some easy and adapatable load management practices. 

And hey-- the beauty of lots of these DR programs if they don't speak to you is that they tend to be opt-in.

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