Smart Grid Searches for an Identity

Smart Grid Searches for an Identity

On the same day that the New York Times published an article on how new electricity meters stir fears, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) held its inaugural symposium in San Diego as a prelude to the utility industry's Distributech conference. While strictly coincidence (unless you're a conspiracy theorist in which case you may want to avoid the Times' follow-up piece), most of the panelists at the Symposium could recite page and paragraph of the news. And rather than voice their frustration with the article, many acknowledged that the utility industry has not done a very good job in terms of communicating with their customers. As Westar Energy's Hal Jensen pointed out, the industry "spent 100 years teaching customers to not think about their utility bill."

The industry's need for greater consumer outreach has led to the formation of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), a non-profit organization aiming to promote the understanding and benefits of modernized electrical systems among all stakeholders in the United States. With membership open to consumer and environmental advocates as well as technology vendors, research scientists and electric utilities, the SGCC is working to educate consumers on how new energy initiatives can help transform the way we power the next century.

For their inaugural symposium, the SGCC commissioned what research director Judith Schwartz deemed a "meta-analysis" of previous research concerning consumer views of energy and the smart grid. The 2011 State of the Consumer report synthesized data from numerous and diverse sources to paint a picture of the current knowledge gap in regards to energy literacy and some of the strategies for engaging with consumers to help them understand the changes that are to come. As Ms. Schwartz noted, this is especially important for the utility industry as their perspective for years has been to "assume what you think is what others think," which in many ways has created a disconnect with consumer attitudes about energy.

While representatives from the utility industry admitted "we don't get out enough to talk with our consumers," several at the symposium described how they had substantially increased efforts to get more involved at a grass-roots level. Perhaps the most important message in the SGCC consumer report is that the key to successful customer engagement will be to acknowledge the need for customer segmentation whether in terms of how they communicate (via email, the monthly bill, Facebook, or a town hall meeting) as well as the message they send.

As Shaltreece Reddick of Consumers Energy pointed out, "incrementalism is key. We first need to provide our customers with basic energy education. Then we can start educating them about what a utility can do better and how advanced technology can help them. Only after that can we start educating them on the deployment of something like the smart grid and advanced meters."

In a series of videos throughout the day, the SGCC projected person-in-the-street interviews asking a number of energy related questions. When asked to define the smart grid, most of those interviewed had no idea what it was. This provided context for a second initiative by the SGCC -- to find a symbol that can help move the energy dialogue forward. To help with this, the non-profit has partnered with frog design in an effort to "find our panda." The panda in this case refers to the World Wildlife Fund's iconic logo but also to other instantly recognizable images such as the recycling close-looped arrows or the Energy Star badge.

You can read more about the Energy Panda project here (and even weigh in on your favorite concept by commenting on the frog design blog). Three concepts have made it to the "finalist" stage: the "charge," "faces," and the "loop." The desired outcome for this project is to initiate behavior change, to provide a way for people to connect with others around the concept of energy.

The "charge," with its tungsten jewelry (hard to not think about conflict mining even though tungsten has become popular for wedding bands) and lightning bolt logo didn't seem to connect with much of the audience. The "faces" concept definitely aims at a young demographic (but, frog design's David Merkoski noted, "we don't want to create another Captain Planet"). And the "loop" offers intriguing possibilities as a symbol that could be adopted by individuals as well as their communities.

Whichever concept the SGCC selects, they're headed in the right direction. As several panelists noted, most consumers don't wake up thinking "I wish I had a smart meter" or "I wish I had time of use pricing." For utilities to communicate with their consumers more effectively they need to get more sophisticated and they need to talk in a language that consumers understand. The need to get out their in the community if they want their consumers to help them make the changes that need to happen.

Photo CC-licensed by Loadmaster.