Creating a True Partnership between Consumers and Utility Companies

Is it possible for us pampered North Americans to continue to enjoy a lifestyle supported by power-hungry appliances and technology while at the same time being environmentally responsible?  Can this take place in a true partnership with the local utility company that we have loved to hate for decades.  The answer to both questions is a resounding "yes!"

As I have discussed in a previous posting, public awareness regarding the importance of conservation and time-shifting electricity use away from peak demand times is absolutely essential.  Japan has done a great job of that after having to shut down most of their nuclear plants which represented 28% of electricity supply before the Fukushima plant disaster.  Prominent public displays of real-time electricity usage, "weather report" style current usage reports and forecasts on the TV news and requests to curtail power-hungry operations announced over company inter-com systems all help to keep the need for conservation and reduced peak demand high on the public agenda.

A recently released study by J.D. powers confirms the relationship between stronger customer engagement and overall customer satisfaction. The study found that customers who were participating in any utility-sponsored program scored about 10% higher on a customer satisfaction survey than those who were not aware that these programs existed. And these are not exciting programs; paperless billing, in-home energy audits and rebates on Energy Star appliances were the big hitters. What would happen if utilities offered their customers programs that could actually reduce their monthly bills in a meaningful way?

Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) has done just that and the result was another #1 rating for OG&E amongst large utilities in the southern region. The actual number earned by OG&E, 683 on a 1,000 point scale, is the highest amongst large utilities in the entire U.S.

What is really encouraging about the OG&E result is the way they achieved it. A quote from their press release summarizes their customer-centric approach which is making increasing use of both the most advanced real-time energy monitoring technology and social media.

"Last year, OG&E rolled out its SmartHours™ pricing program, which allows customers to save when energy costs are lower, or off peak, as well as myOGEpower, an online energy management tool. Used together, myOGEpower and SmartHours can help make customer savings easier through time-based pricing programs and almost real-time usage information. The company also increased its use of social media channels Facebook and Twitter to keep customers informed about outages as well as programs and services."

The OG&E website is filled with material that is appealing and informative.  For example, the graphic below provides a simple and effective summary of how the "Smart Hours" program works.

The company web site also offers games and activities that allow customers to earn points, win tickets to sporting events and receive other incentives for "spreading the word" about OG&E programs such as their voluntary wind power purchase program.  By providing "cool zones" to help vulnerable members of the public avoid heat-related illnesses and offering many high-profile public education programs OG&E continues to build broad community support for conservation and sustainable energy initiatives.

At the heart of any demand response program whether it be strictly on a "good citizen" basis or whether it involves financial incentives is the ability to understand residential electricity use on an hourly basis.  That requires smart meters.  Unfortunately, "smart meters" have received a lot of bad press based upon highly questionable allegations of potential health risks and invasions of privacy.  As a result it is absolutely necessary to address customer concerns during the rollout of any smart meter program.

A comprehensive study by the Smartgrid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) in 2011 investigated about 150 smart grid initiatives in an attempt to identify consistent success factors.  As might be expected, the reputation and public trust earned by a utility has a significant bearing on the willingness of customers to engage in smart meter and demand response programs.

Engagement for utilities starts with their own employees and there is evidence that tapping into the energy and enthusiasm of employees and local celebrities can have a big impact.  The SGCC study quote from the Arizona Power Corporation (APS) demonstrates that public education can be creative - maybe even fun!

"employees volunteer to be a part of their (APS's) educational clown troop; energy superhero team performs at local events; Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash featured in energy conservation campaign that APS credited with helping them achieve their highest rate of customers who tried to reduce their energy on record"

So what is the bottom line?  I would conclude that if a community is mobilized, provided with engaging and easily understood information, and understands the long-term benefits of reducing peak demand, significant changes in consumer electricity consumption patterns can be achieved. 

When you think about it we only have a real problem with insufficient electricity supply for a few hours of the day on the hottest days and the coldest, darkest nights. If we can successfully clip these demand peaks we can avoid having to build additional firm generation capacity that is used only sporatically. And as we move into an era when "Availability-of-Supply" pricing will replace "Time-of-Use" pricing the ability to quickly change system load in response to variable renewable energy sources like wind will become increasingly important.

As Red Green would say, "We're all in this together!"

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