Residential solar power customers want more – not less – customer service

rooftop solar july 5 elp

Electric utilities should plan for a surge in customer contact from residential solar power owners, according to Jamie Wimberly, CEO of DEFG and Dan Gabaldon, founding partner at Enovation Partners who spoke before the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners (NARUC).

“The prevailing belief among utility stakeholders is that customers will stop calling or not require as much customer service once they install solar PV systems on their homes,” said Wimberly.

“In fact, utilities should expect to provide significant customer support requirements and will face the potential for even more customer contact,” he said. “This support will be needed across all stages of the customer journey—from initial research to installation to billing and maintenance.”

“As a result, there is a clear need to prepare for solar-specific service levels, staffing, system requirements and cost-to-serve calculations differentiated from the traditional customer service model.”

Wimberly and Gabaldon highlighted findings from two comprehensive customer surveys in a presentation before the NARUC Subcommittee of Consumers Affairs at the association’s annual convention. The surveys included one of the general American population and one focused on residential customers who already have adopted solar.

“Our research challenges the conventional wisdom that solar poses a grave threat to utilities’ relationship with their customers,” noted Enovation’s Gabaldon. “We found just the opposite!”

“Solar adopters are overwhelmingly positive about their decision, perhaps since over 85 percent met or exceeded their expected savings (40 percent reported savings of 20 percent or more on their electricity bill). And nearly half of respondents indicated they had more positive feelings toward their utility since choosing solar, and most were interested in increasing the range of solar-related information and services from their utility.”

“The challenge for utilities is finding a way to meet their solar customers’ new and expanded needs.”

Findings

·      The first customer survey conducted by DEFG and Enovation Partners focused on the general population (1000+ Americans across the nation), with the vast majority of those customers (95 percent) currently without residential solar PV on their homes.

·      Almost half of those surveyed indicated that they were extremely interested (8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale) in an offer to switch to solar power. This finding confirms significant market demand and growth in residential PV adoption over the next five years.

·      The top reasons given by respondents for switching to solar include “cheaper electricity/lower bill” (44 percent) and “cleaner and more environmentally friendly electricity” (33 percent).

·      Most Americans believe their local utility either supports residential solar or is neutral.

·      Almost a quarter of Americans surveyed believe that they would want more contact with their utility if they had solar on their home.

·      Almost a third of respondents would call their local utility first if they had billing inquiries, even if they had a contract with a solar leasing company.

·      When asked about how different the level of customer service required from their local electric utility would be once they had solar on their homes, 24 percent of respondents believe that “significantly different” customer service from their utility would be required, and 45 percent believe “somewhat different.”

·      When asked about support requirements from their local electric utility at every stage of the customer journey, now and into the future, respondents clearly felt that “significant support” (8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale) would be required at every stage.

·      The second survey focused on 315 Americans across the nation that currently have solar PV on their homes.

·      The top reasons for choosing to have solar on their homes were similar to the general population: electric bill savings and cleaner power.

·      There is an overall positive assessment of the utility role currently. Over half of the respondents surveyed indicated that their local utility was either “helpful” or “somewhat helpful” in the process of selecting and installing solar PV on their homes.

·      However, about 30 percent of respondents were neutral or negative about their current billing. Respondents reported multiple types of billing errors, with a third of those requiring resolution by phone.

·      Overall, most reported meeting or exceeding their expectations for savings, though there was a wide variation of reported savings achieved (from over 30 percent savings to a few respondents who reported no or negative savings).

·      Customers purchasing versus leasing PV generally obtained a higher level of savings.

·      Most PV customers reported a positive experience and would recommend others adopt solar.

·      Almost half of respondents said they either have “much more positive” (24 percent) or “somewhat more positive” (24 percent) feelings toward their local electric utility since switching to solar.

·      The actual levels of customer support required of their local electric utility by customers that have solar is much higher than expected by those that don’t have solar.

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