Trying to modernise a utility’s relationship with customers through promoting energy efficiency

The role of energy companies to promote energy efficiency is well understood even if it isn’t always well done. Diane Cardwell writes in the New York Times about an important new initiative by Con Edison to personalise services to consumers. Will it work? What do you think?

 

Con Edison Aims to Revamp Customer Service, Saving Energy Too

Con Edison, a public utility that traces its roots to the 19th century, is trying to modernize its relationship with customers, aiming to make interactions with them as smooth as ones they would have with Amazon or Uber. A result, it hopes, will be lower energy bills.

Under the effort, about 270,000 New York customers in Brooklyn and Westchester County will start receiving personalized reports about their energy use with recommendations on specific energy-related products — like a smart thermostat or rooftop solar system — that they can install to lower their bills.

For the effort, Con Ed has embarked on a multiyear agreement with the home energy management company Opower to help better analyze residential energy use and upgrade communications with customers, both online and on paper.

“Everything you do online is simple, easy, convenient, and we just need to get there,” said James Brennan, director of demonstration projects in the distributed resource integration department at Con Edison. “We need to make it as simple and easy and efficient as we can, whether they’re paying their bill, whether they’re buying a thermostat, whether they’re buying a TV.”

Facing competition from alternative service providers — including cable companies offering wireless home energy management systems and upstarts selling rooftop solar — electric companies across the county are experimenting with ways to engage their customers and strengthen their relationships with them while helping them save energy.

Among the most successful is a program at Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest utilities, with Tendril, an energy management company based in Boulder, Colo. Using home energy reports that explain to customers how their energy use compares with similar homes in their areas and how they might reduce that use, the program has saved more than a terawatt-hour of electricity since it started in 2010. That is enough to light more than one million homes for a year in the Duke Energy service territory, which covers parts of several states including Ohio, Indiana and the Carolinas, the company said.

Suggesting behavioral changes like hanging the laundry out to dry once a week and using energy-efficient products and services, as well as sending out email alerts when weather patterns suggest a customer might use more energy than usual, has resulted in about 1 to 3 percent in savings each year, said Adrian Tuck, Tendril’s chief executive.

Executives at Duke, who developed and tested an energy savings program internally for two years before seeking an outside company to design and manage a larger-scale program, have been happy with the results.

“If we can get this cumulative effect from all of these customers taking the tips and putting them into action, certainly we’re still going to have to build power plants, but it postpones the effort,” said Kelly Kuehn, senior product and services manager at the utility.

In New York, the program includes a demonstration project approved under the Reforming the Energy Vision, known as REV, from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who aims to remake the state’s energy system and help utilities find new revenue sources.

The demonstration project, called Connected Homes, is intended to increase customer adoption of energy-saving and energy-generating products. For the selected customers, the home energy reports might suggest installing a SunPower solar system or a Nest thermostat, which can be adjusted remotely.

By matching customer usage and heating and cooling patterns with data like homeownership status and location, the Opower system can make it easier to promote the products to the households most likely to buy them. The effort, which will also include a website for customers to research and buy energy-efficient appliances, products and services, is expected to expand as Con Edison completes negotiations with other providers and introduces smart meters next year.

2 thoughts on “Trying to modernise a utility’s relationship with customers through promoting energy efficiency

  1. The figure mentioned by Tendril’s chief executive (1 to 3% energy savings) is very tricky:
    – does it mean 1 to 3% savings additional each year, or is it just a very little improvement that is already difficult to maintain over time?
    – it is an average value that likely hides large discrepancies: it is often more interesting to know what share of the participants actually saved energy, and how
    – this is exactly what is often missing in the evaluation of these approaches (OPower, Nest, etc.): there is a kind of “Big data” myth, with the belief that sophisticated statistical modelling will tell everything from energy meters’ data. Energy meters’ data do tell if there has been a change, and statistics can help to know if these changes are significant. However, it tells nothing about the causality
    – in particular, most of these evaluations do not provide insights about whether the home energy reports or other feedback have led to energy efficiency actions (and what type of actions)

    To summarize, this kind of programmes get many attention from the medias and the decision makers, while they bring a minor contribution to what we should do to meet 20% to 80% energy savings between now and 2050. So maybe the means and attention should be focused on the major energy savings potentials (like building renovation).

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