As utilities transition to cleaner energy sources and plan for increasing numbers of electric vehicles and rooftop solar panels, their need to know their customers better, engage with them more effectively and entice them to sign up for demand side management (DSM) programs is greater than ever.
Adding smarter energy infrastructure can empower customers, reduce costs and boost reliability and resilience of the grid, said the utility industry group Edison Electric Institute and the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Fund last February in a joint statement to the U.S. utility regulators. They also suggested that utilities and the government should ramp up programs that deliver cost-effective energy efficiency and add clean energy resources such as solar and wind power.
Amid rising retail power prices and concern about climate change, utilities also face increasing pressure from customers and regulators to offer effective conservation programs to customers, both commercial and residential, that reduce their power consumption and electric bills.
“Utilities tend to plan on the basis of far out horizons, although, changes will become more frequent for utilities as they are working to reinvent themselves. As a matter of fact, many utilities are already diligent in preparing the ground for the ‘new-era-utility.’ It behooves utilities to identify customers who are predisposed to participating in distributed energy resources (DER), such as clean power, EVs, storage and microgrids early on so utilities are empowered to implement forward-looking utility business models,” said Udi Merhav, CEO of energyOrbit.
Utilities powered by modern business systems and data mining capabilities have ample data pertaining to customers to help them identify early-adopters for new business models. However, these insights are often overlooked as a tool to help in the utility’s planning process.
Much of the data utilities have on their customers is embedded in the data that comes from their customers’ smart meters, while other data comes from home audit surveys and energy efficiency program participation. Yet, utilities often struggle to leverage that data to personalize their outreach to their customers and identify customers who could be a good fit for new programs more cost effectively.
“Many customers are open to these clean energy programs, but they might not pursue them on their own,” Merhav said. “However, if their utility were to approach them with an offer and the convenience of realizing it, they might pursue it. The key to ensuring good customer engagement, though, is to make sure you have as much information as possible on the customer before you make the offer; gone are the days of the ‘carpet bombing approach.’”
Dozens of utilities throughout the U.S., including nine investor-owned utilities, use the customer engagement platform from energyOrbit to dynamically, and thoroughly, replicate workflow automation for powering DSM programs. In fact, the company helped utilities manage more than $1.6 billion in incentive dollars by automating the administrative management of their DSM programs.
Merhav says customer data of on-site energy efficiency audits, upgrades and the provisioning of energy efficiency rebates provides invaluable insights into customers’ predisposition for participating in future DERs. Through comprehensive tracking and analysis of these customers within the utility’s DSM programs, they can readily see exactly where in their territory environmentally or economically motivated customers are located. They can also understand quickly what level of engagement these customers have already taken concerning energy efficiency and evaluate their potential willingness to someday expand their activities into other clean energy solutions.
“Once these customers realize and enjoy the benefits of lower utility bills and energy savings, they are often motivated to do even more to optimize their energy use and reduce their carbon footprint. This is how energy efficiency becomes a gateway to the smoother, more efficient implementation of DER models and to actualize the electrification trend,” continued Merhav.
Another DSM platform from Bidgely also allows utilities to engage with their customers and assist them in conserving energy. By leveraging data, Bidgely is able to pinpoint homes for utility programs such as DER or EV charging. Twenty-six utilities around the world use Bidgely’s Artificial Intelligence-powered energy disaggregation software to target customers with energy efficiency guidance on a range of communications channels — from their phones, tablets and to paper mail and computers. The personalized and actionable insights that help customers save energy also enable utilities to build enduring customer relationships and target customers with offers like smart thermostats for demand-response programs.
“When you have a digital platform that tracks and itemizes consumers’ energy use by individual appliances, you can get a detailed picture of a customer profile and provide highly personalized offers and outreach to consumers that are based on their actual usage,” said Abhay Gupta CEO of Bidgely. “You can also use low-cost and highly scalable channels of communication to reach out to people, via email or text, and find out their preferences and whether they liked something or not.”
Scouting For Early Adopters
Now utilities can leverage the activities they are already undertaking one step further and use these two software platforms (and others) to data mine customer power-usage and pinpoint which customers in a utility’s service territory are good candidates for programs that go beyond energy efficiency and DSM. They could leverage the disaggregated energy usage data from Bidgely to see how customers are using energy now, and program participation information, history and customer interfaces from energyOrbit to target those that are already engaged in energy efficiency initiatives.
Today, utilities across the globe are in a race to reinvent themselves in the face of myriad challenges, including the advent of DER models and yet-to-be-discovered utility business models. With long-term planning horizons, it is critical that these organizations use as many DSM data points as possible when they plan ahead. Through companies such as Bidgley and energyOrbit, planners have mountains of information, organized into actionable units, that can help them make more strategic decisions as to where and how they roll out DER, such as rooftop solar, EV charging programs, storage and integration into microgrids.
By embracing modern business solutions, such as energy use disaggregation and personalized outreach, and automating their DSM programs, utilities can more strategically and effectively forge stronger, more meaningful relationships with customers, meet their company goals, and usher in a new era in energy generation and distribution.
Lead image credit: CC0 Creative Commons | Pixabay