Customers often have concerns about privacy and meter accuracy. As such, electric utilities need to identify customers' needs and desires when it comes to smart meter technology. From my experience working with utilities through Utilimetrics, here are four tips on how utilities can integrate smart meter technology into their smart grids with customer acceptance and even anticipation.
- Be prepared for customer pushback
When most new technologies are introduced, usage is voluntary. With smart meters, everyone is forced to opt in. Some resistance may come from “fringe groups” with unusual concerns, such as electromagnetic radiation and spying.
John Wambaugh, senior vice president of Utility Integration Solutions, says most backlash seems to be related to customers' perception that smart metering is forced upon them by the utility for nefarious purposes, such as raising rates.
- Explain the basic benefits of smart meters to customers
Obviously, smart meters offer internal benefits to utilities, but it will be a tough sell if a company only focuses on the benefits for the utilities rather than for the customers.
Most utilities don't have experience communicating helpful information to customers. As such, their communication with customers tends to be reactive. In my experience, customers often want to know two things: 1) When will my power be back on? 2) Why is my bill so high?
Duke Energy, however, has already discovered an innovative way to communicate with customers on the benefits of smart meters. Paige Layne, a spokesperson for the utility, says that utilities like to talk about equipment, but what they need to do is focus now on the benefits of that equipment.
Duke's research indicates customers want to take control. Some people love gadgets, so they may want to have energy managers in their homes, adjust their thermostats and appliances, and watch their energy usage every day. For them, this may represent control, says Layne.
With smart meters, utilities have data on customer consumption on a level they didn't have in the past, says John Galloway, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Ecologic Analytics. He says utilities can use that information to service their customers better when there are changes in consumption. Utilities can now offer new technology that customers can use inside their homes to interact with that data.
As such, Wambaugh says the utilities need to engage customers, help them understand how they are using energy and then help them to reduce bills and save energy. He also says the most significant benefit of smart meters is the ability to understand and control consumption, resulting in energy efficiency and reduced bills.
Another way to promote the benefits of the smart meter is to position it as useful technology. According to Layne, a lot of customers think of the smart meter as something completely different than what they are familiar with. “We are trying to position it simply as digital technology coming to the energy industry,” she explains. “It will provide benefits to customers that they don't already have. We emphasize energy is really the only service in their lives that is not digitally enabled. We get them to think about what other technologies have done for them, such as smart phones and the Internet.”
- Find out what else customers want
You probably have a good idea of what features your utility wants in smart meters. Before making the purchase, get input from customers on features they want, features that may not have occurred to you from your perspective as an energy provider.
The first thing consumers want from smart meters is usage information. “Most customers don't know what they use or when they use it,” says Wambaugh. “So, before pricing can be used, the customers need to know what they are currently doing and how they can change their behavior.”
- Focus on the future
Despite all of utilities' and customers' benefits, features, wants and needs, information on the useful functions of smart meters has only begun to scratch the surface. Electric utilities must think about the features and benefits they and their customers might want in the future. For example, when cell phones were first introduced, no one would have thought that they would one day be able to take photos, create video, send texts or provide Internet access.
In the same vein, smart metering technology could change down the road. In the future, customers may be able to remotely turn heat and air conditioning up or down. They may be able to remotely turn lights on and off and operate home security systems.
Smart meters are in their infancy. To make the most of them, request input from several different sources both from within your utility and from your customer base. Then roll out a smart meter program that can take advantage of existing wants and needs, and also be flexible enough to accommodate future wants and needs.
Joel Hoiland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is CEO of Utilimetrics, which provides advocacy for utilities and information about innovative technologies that lead to improved operations, customer service and resource utilization.