As we’ve written before, “consumer engagement” just might be today’s top smart grid buzzword. This is driven by fears that well publicized consumer push-back against smart metering will torpedo the industry’s smart grid vision. Many industry participants (including this one) have observed the frenzied scramble to “engage consumers” with a mix of amusement and fear: amusement that so few utilities seem to really understand the customers they’ve been serving for the last century or so, and fear that if they (continue to) mess it up, some of the world’s most important energy technologies may languish as a result.
So when Pike Research’s latest consumer survey results were recently published, I was very encouraged to observe that the more a consumer was familiar with smart meters, the more favorable his or her view. Fully 67 percent of respondents who were “extremely familiar” with smart meters stated that they had an “extremely” or “very” favorable opinion of the devices, which compared with 29 percent for respondents overall. To be sure, the overall level of familiarity remains quite low, with more than half of respondents describing themselves as “not very” or “not at all” familiar with smart meters. Not surprisingly, these reported the greatest ambivalence about the technology. Yet, this indicates that the window for winning consumer’s hearts and minds for smart meters is still open, and effective (i.e. honest) marketing should be successful.
One industry fear is that the negative publicity surrounding some deployments (the “Bakersfield Effect”) might hamper consumer education efforts. We did see some evidence of this in our survey results, as those who described themselves as “extremely familiar” also had some of the most negative views as well, though 2.5 times more favorable opinions were recorded than negative ones. By far the biggest reason cited for a negative view was fear of higher electric bills, which may indicate either their “education” has been through negative press about surcharges and inaccurate billing, or they simply don’t believe what the industry is saying. This represents an opportunity to turn even this minority around of smart meters can demonstrably deliver the consumers benefits they promise.
Of course, this is the $64,000 (or in ARRA terms, $3.5B) dollar question: with smart meters approaching an installed base critical mass, can the benefits be made definitely obvious to the paying public? This will be up to the regulators, rate designers, and utility marketers diligently dusting off their “marketing 101” textbooks, all in the name of consumer engagement.
Article by Bob Gohn.