There are quite a number of nice Smart Grid concept drawings out there, and this one — courtesy of the Department of Energy — strikes me as perhaps one of the best in part because of one thing: it puts the residential customer at the center of the action.
The unfortunate reality, however, is the majority of Smart Grid roll-outs, regardless of the marketing hype and a glut of good intentions, actually end up completely missing any real connection with those customers. Yet in spite of that most of these roll-outs claim the whole reason for the Smart Grid is to make all our lives better from an energy perspective.
For those that think I am overstating the case, consider some of the results from a special survey the Harris Poll conducted with U.S. customers between January 18 and 25, 2010 (see their online summary of the report for more details):
- 68% have never heard of the term Smart Grid
- 63% have never heard of the term Smart Meter
When around two-thirds of all of your perspective customers haven’t heard of your product, it is safe to say you have a communication problem.
The situation, unfortunately, is actually far worse than that. According to the poll, people are far from sure the Smart Grid will increase the use of solar, wind and other sources of renewable electricity (only 39% agreed) and only 33% believe the Smart Grid will improve the reliability of electricity. The poll also notes that only 14% of respondents disagree with the statement “Smart Grid will increase the cost of electricity”, vs. 42% who think Smart Grids will drive up the prices.
Not exactly a stellar connection with the customer.
In addition to the disappointing poll results, even though rollouts of Smart Meters are accelerating throughout the world (see “The Quietest Technology Revolution in History”), so too are the lawsuits from early customers who are in shock from price increases they had not expected. A class-action lawsuit against Wellington Energy, the meter installer for Pacific Gas & Electric in Bakersfield, California, is just one example, For similar reasons, the Texas Public Utilities Commission is also considering putting a moratorium on further installations as well, at least until it can be understood why customers are getting the surprise power bill increases after Smart Meter installations in those areas.
If your customers don’t know even the name of your new product and want to sue you after you’ve installed it, it is also safe to say you don’t exactly have the best relationship going.
The sad part is this is indeed all about a revolution that will make life better for all of us. The Smart Meter will in the end provide the end customer with better understanding of their energy usage on an hourly basis, while at the same time allowing the utilities to charge more when the available supply of energy is more strained (something that in theory should help drive down demand or move it to a different time of day). Further enhancements to the system will allow residential users with smart appliances to monitor time-of-day usage and automatically adjust settings to help minimize energy costs. When residents begin to install solar panels and mini wind turbines that generate energy, the same Smart Meters will allow flow of excess power generated out of the home and into the grid, while at the same time giving home users additional credits.
The two phrases I hear about most often connected with the problems consumers are experiencing are “we need to educate customers more” or that they need to “manage customer expectations better”. Unfortunately, the problem with both of those statements is that they have built into them the idea that this is something that the utilities or government officials driving for these new systems need to do “to” the customers. Get them more leaflets, more brochures. Spend more on a PR campaign to increase awareness.
This is the wrong approach, in my opinion. This isn’t about building awareness about a disease that’s coming or setting off the alarms to warn of an incoming tsunami. It also isn’t about sending out more letters or broadcasting more public service messages. This is about building a true partnership with all members of the Smart Grid, from the generators of electricity (regardless of where they may be) to the distributors and the consumers.
Building such a true partnership requires more than just “managing expectations”. It also involves far more than just making sure customers are better educated as to what may happen when the Smart Meters go in. What you want in such a partnership is a co-creative engagement of all parties involved to help with everything from system requirements definition all the way to design, deployment, and ongoing management of the system. And guess what? This is hard work.
This is about a public trust, one in which the Global Village we are all part of needs to work together to make the most of the powerful systems technology known as the Smart Grid.
It is NOT about having our “expectations” managed for us by third parties.
What it IS all about is putting the customer back in the center of the picture. It is not easy, but no great revolution ever was.