Digital Utility Professionals Group

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Customer engagement: keeping it simple

Utilities are increasingly attempting to better engage their customers to ensure the success of smart meter and smart grid deployments. But how best to do this? I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mark Webb, director of policy and business evaluation at Dominion Resources, and asked him what advice he would provide other utilities as they attempt to engage their customers with smart grid solutions.

According to Webb, an important thing to do is to keep your message simple. "I think utilities need to convey to the customers that they will be involved to the extent that they want to be involved," he said.   "Ultimately the customer will have the opportunity themselves to engage and analyze their power usage, and if they're concerned about the environment, they'll also be able to see how their energy usage impacts the environment."

Webb feels that the typical utility customer is smart enough to realize that all of the capabilities of the smart grid may not be known yet. "We need to show them the immediate benefits, the simple benefits, and then explain what some people think is possible over the long-term," he said. "Many of those things will come true and some may not, but certainly things will become possible that we haven't even thought of yet."

Customer segmentation is another area that Webb feels utilities should be analyzing. "When we talk about customers, at least in our regulated electric territory, our customers are not a monolith in terms of their viewpoints," said Webb. Like many utilities, Dominion has a diverse economy across their region, from Virginia's high-tech corridor to the tobacco regions of southern Virginia, and each of these sub-regions are quite unique.

The utility is also cognizant of the generational gaps that exist in their market. "We have many senior citizens who are very much concerned that these smart grid investments could lead to mandatory time of use rates that impact their lifestyle, but we also have many younger people who are not only accustomed to using new technologies, but desire them," said Webb. "I think that somehow utilities have to find the middle ground to prepare for the people who are the new customers coming in, and at the same time be mindful of the concerns of older customers who may be less comfortable with new technologies."

In closing I asked Webb what regulatory changes may be needed in the future to accelerate smart grid development on utility systems. He thought that utilities and commissions may need to rethink some of the expected depreciable life of assets. "I think that some of the software and solutions that will be components of the smart grid may not last for the 30 to 40 years that we're accustomed to," said Webb.  "I also think that we're also going to need to come up with a way for commissions to understand benefits that may be in the future, and may not be demonstrable in the near-term.  Looking at models like the internet, or the build out of wireless networks, and trying to envision the benefits that consumers will derive may not be provable under the tests that utility commissions are used to applying with the typical cost benefit analysis."


Christopher Perdue
Vice President, Sierra Energy Group
Twitter: @chris_perdue

Christopher Perdue's picture

Thank Christopher for the Post!

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