We don’t think about energy until something goes wrong, and this week things went wrong on an historic level. As a result, the public and pundits are again focusing on the fragility of big electric grids.
Ten percent of the world’s population – more than 600 million people – lost their power in India on July 31, marking the largest blackout in history. India’s grid collapse follows the storm-related outages that left Washington, D.C. sweltering for days when a freak super derecho hit in June.
Smart grid uses high tech devices to make the electric system more sophisticated and less likely to fail. It also opens the way for a future of decentralized power, where the home, the car, and office building, each become power plants in their own right.
But smart grid requires a degree of customer energy self-management, something foreign to most of us. So the energy industry has been working hard to figure out how to interest consumers in the various energy displays, time-of-use rates, smart meters and other tools of smart grid.
To do this, utilities must get inside the head of the consumer, something Proctor & Gamble or Apple Computer do routinely, but monopoly-based utilities have never before found necessary.
In an effort to help, SGCC recently not only asked consumers what they think about smart grid, but also video-taped their responses. After all, sometimes what we say only half reveals what we mean. How we say something means a lot.
“It’s one thing to read a one dimensional set of quotes. But it is another thing entirely to watch consumers and hear them saying in their own words what they think and what they know,” said Patty Durand, SGCC executive director, in a recent interview.
The group interviewed 24 consumers in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago. What did the interviews reveal, and how can the information help utilities?
It turns out consumers do want data about their energy use, but also want help understanding what it means and how to use it. They worry about reliability and price and in some cases the environment. Most important, says Durand, they don’t all think alike, so shouldn’t all be approached by utilities in the same way.
Consumers generally fall into five categories, she said.
- Traditionals – Often senior citizens who oppose change
- Do-it-yourselfers – They want to save money and mange their spending
- Easy Streets – Highly educated consumers or those making a good income who want to save time and avoid waste
- Young Americans – Those just starting out who don’t know much about smart grid but want to learn
- Concerned Greens – Environmentally motivated individuals who are highly likely to embrace smart grid
Each of these groups responds differently to smart grid pitches. Utilities will be best able to capture consumer interest if they tailor messages to each, she said.
For example, information about renewable energy will resonate with Concerned Greens and Easy Streets, while it will irritate the Traditionals. They might respond better to a message that emphasizes US competitiveness. “There are so many opinions and passions around energy and the environment that the targeted message is better,” Durand said.
The bottom line is that utilities for years have treated customers as “monoliths,” she said. Watching consumers in action, on video, makes clear the differences in consumer concerns and interests. “Education is key, but it needs to be carefully deployed.”
See the ten things consumer want most from smart grid, and a short clip of the interviews, here.
Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.