What I heard (and didn’t) at an electric utility convention

Speaking Sustainably

What I heard (and didn’t) at an electric utility convention

I recently attended the Edison Electric Institute annual convention in San Francisco. EEI represents the nation’s largest investor-owned electric utilities. Virtually every senior executive in the industry attended. The headline events were keynotes by Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs’ biographer) and Condoleezza Rice.

The conference addressed a wide range of topics, from the role of leadership in company culture to the role of Big Data in operations.

What I didn’t hear

As a marketing guy with a focus on energy efficiency and sustainability, I was hoping to hear more dialogue about consumer engagement and renewables. I heard neither.

This surprised me, because our Utility Pulse research shows how much consumers value proactive interactions with utilities and how interested they are in renewables. In fact, our research shows that if a consumer believes his/her utility is doing the right thing for the environment, he/she is more satisfied with the utility. So it would seem utilities should be talking about renewables.

I didn’t actually hear a lot of definitive or polarizing dialogue – the best kind, if you ask me – on any topics. And I’m not sure why, because the utility industry has plenty of issues to talk about.

Food for thought

From my perspective, however, there were several takeaways worthy of future discussion:

  • Nobody on the utility side is saying what they’ll do with the Big Data they’re gathering about their customers. I hope the utilities won’t just sit on it, as the opportunities for engagement are unlimited, particularly around energy efficiency.
  • There was an interesting discussion on electrification of transportation and infrastructure. Here, utilities were talking like marketers. During most hours of the day and in milder seasons, they have a lot of available capacity. So, how can they persuade customers to switch from other energy sources, including internal combustion engines, to electricity? An extension of this discussion was the launch of a website called The Electric Generation, which is promoting electric vehicles and other transportation.
  • There were a couple of electric motorcycles on display. Cool, but why?
  • I encountered a car and truck fleet-management software company called Telogis. It offers a suite of software solutions, including highly engaging mobile apps that help drivers and managers monitor and improve vehicle performance by monitoring data, such as idle time and speeding. The net effect is improved fuel efficiency and improved safety – a real win-win.

The utility industry is contending with a variety of market forces from the regulatory to the environmental. And, of course, they are chartered with delivering cheap and reliable electricity while satisfying shareholders, which is no mean feat.

Overall, utilities are faced with making discrete choices in the face of limited resources, just like the rest of us.

I was encouraged by the openness of the CEOs, but next year I’ll once again be looking for more specificity and commitment to the issues of consumer engagement and alternative energy sources.

There’s just so much to be gained from a few focused efforts in these areas.