National Grid: the utility alpha when it comes to customer listening
- Nov 2, 2015 7:57 pm GMT
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THERE'S JUST A WEALTH of stuff to talk about when you phone up National Grid U.S., one of the major utility players in the country.
They've recently put together a new division. They're participating in New York's Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) project. They're working on grid modernization in Massachusetts, which they delightfully refer to as "GridMod," which makes me picture them all wearing '60s mod clothing. (It's an amusing vision.)
Lots of stuff going on. Lots of action.
Lots of interactions. So, I stole a few minutes out of one very busy day for Ed White, the vice president of that shiny new division known as New Energy Solutions, and Marcy Reed, the president of National Grid in Massachusetts, who is keeping an overview eye on those GridMod activities.
I wanted to know more about these new shake-ups in the utility: what they mean, how they all work together, what they all say about the--to steal from White's division name--new energy future.
So, starting with White, I asked the burning question: Why? Why a new division?
Why bother? What started this process? (OK, I asked more than one question but all thematically related.)
White pointed to all the stuff going on in the Northeast today as one reason his new division exists--REV, the modernization work, markets, customer desires, and the push of policymakers.
The division, rather than being an internal push to redesign, came from an external force rearranging the whole darn energy world.
"We're fortunate enough to live in the Northeast with some pretty progressive desires to have a green and renewables focus on energy needs," White said. "Creating this new group helps us focus and get excited about the transformation activities happening all around us."
But, while the division is shiny and new, the idea, according to White, really began long ago when National Grid started pushing out feelers into energy efficiency and smart grid. The new division simply "builds on that DNA," he added.
Reed chimed in that it's really all an evolution, of sorts, even going back further to that old pipes and wires foundation. But, times change and so must National Grid.
"We've been a provider of safe, reliable energy for over 100 years. However, customer expectations evolve," she said. "And while they still expect the lights to come on, they also increasingly want better data. They want more products and services. They want to make better decisions around energy use."
And so the New Energy Solutions division was born to meet those changing customer expectations--and, hopefully, to anticipate the next ones, too.
So how do they know what those customers expect? Well, they ask. They ask for customer input into programs and after large storms. They sort through, categorize and respond to complaints and frustrations. They do surveys and focus groups. They look at work other utilities have done. (And they gave a shout out to OG&E's smart meter program design with its customer focus.) And they hold summits with communities, policyholders and even academics. Apparently, there's a whole lot of communication involved in understanding what a customer really wants.
In fact, in Worcester, Massachusetts, they have a storefront on Main Street called the Sustainability Hub that is a community space. It allows them to "share information on a granular level," White said. (Learn more about the Sustainability Hub with a search online for our profile from last year. Just look for "National Grid's Sustainability Hub gathers customers and community.")
Reed added that her group also held group sessions for energy influencers, who could range from managers to emergency people, before they put together their GridMod filing.
And that feedback is reflected in not just the utility's GridMod work in Massachusetts, but also in the new division, in the REV work--well, in everything, really.
"This is the future," Reed said. "We fully recognize this will be the new normal. This level of customer focus is now embedded within our core business. It represents the vision that we hold."
"Our industry really thinks that the problem always needs a tech solution, but we're thinking differently. We're really coming up with a customer solution," White added. "Sometimes even the new tech is really a customer solution. It's what they want, and it answers a problem they have."
"Our customers are more able these days to describe what they want and what it might look like because we're all more plugged in and interconnected," Reed chimed in. "Literally, we have college students at the Hub that say, `Hey, I can create an app for that.' It's just the way the world is going. It's the way we're all going."
So how does an old school utility survive in this new school, app-heavy universe? Well, White suggests this direct tidbit: Quit trying to avoid it and get involved. Get in front of this disruption. Oh, and like National Grid, listen to customers. He admits that National Grid may be a bit in the "early adopters" camp on the customer interface front, but he sees it being valuable to every utility.
Reed noted that, really, it will be decades before the traditional utility isn't the norm. That is, she doesn't see anyone being in imminent danger of no longer existing. But she admits there's definitely a shift coming eventually. What's currently about 10 percent of the business (solar, DER, storage) will become a larger portion of every utility's portfolio. (White agreed, adding that the future role of utilities may lie with integration--plugging things into the grid--more than anything else.)
"But if you're worried about what your existence will look like in that new world, now's the time to shape it," Reed said. "Work it. Build it. I had a boss that would tell us: Only the lead dog has a different view. It's so true. You want to see what's coming? Get out in front, whether that's with tech or with the customer."