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Changing solar energy landscape gives utilities new stories to tell

By K Kaufmann and Alanya Schofield

When it comes to communications, many utilities today find themselves in a seemingly no-win situation, particularly when presenting their perspectives in ongoing state-level debates over net energy metering and other rate reforms.

Solar industry arguments, often portraying utilities as anti-solar, are designed to connect with consumers on an emotional level, while utilities talk less-than-engaging industry jargon and technical details. Further stacking the deck, any efforts by utilities to change this dynamic — to reframe the narrative or use more media- or customer-friendly language — are met with skepticism or worse.

Addressing such anti-solar assumptions was one focus of discussion at the first meeting of a new working group of utility representatives formed specifically to help utilities develop transparent and effective communications about solar. The Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and industry consultant E Source are partnering on the initiative, aimed at allowing utilities to share ideas and experiences on shaping new narratives and communications strategies on solar and rate reform issues.

The day-long session, at SEPA’s recent Utility Solar Conference in Denver, drew representatives from 15 utilities, a roster that included small electric cooperatives as well as large investor-owned utilities. Many of those present said their companies tend to refrain from media wars with solar supporters, but their approach to communications is, on the one hand, basically reactive and, on the other, overly technical and complicated.

The industry as a whole is still searching for ways to develop positive, proactive narratives that connect emotionally with customers while explaining the complexities involved in transforming utilities’ 100-year-old business models.

The challenge for the working group, and the industry in general, is how to build these new approaches while also confronting head on — and avoiding — the appearance of industry spin. Can utilities, solar industry stakeholders and consumers focus instead on communications strategies that improve understanding, trust and transparency for all? What are the stories utilities can uniquely and authentically tell that will help move the energy transition forward?

Certainly, the elements of the energy narrative are changing for all players. Both solar and other distributed energy technologies — such as storage, demand response and electric vehicles — are leading to rate changes aimed at promoting more efficient use of electric power. For example, time-of-use rates, now being introduced in a number of markets, are intended to provide customers with price signals for cutting electricity use at times of peak demand and shifting consumption to off-peak periods.

SEPA-Black & Veatch report shows how utilities are planning for the distributed energy future here.

Understanding the impact of language is an important part of this transition. While most people are familiar with the idea of time-related discounts — such as “happy hour” prices at bars — an E Source survey of consumers across the United States found that only about a third of them understand what time-of-use means. Further, practically any utility terminology that includes the word “charge” — fixed charge, demand charge — elicits a negative response.

The goal, said one executive, should not be reacting to isolated solar company statements or specific proposals on a case by case basis. Rather, utilities should concentrate on finding new opportunities to partner and build stronger relationships with their customers and stakeholders, a theme that resonated with participants throughout the workshop.

“We as utilities should be proud we play a central role in the future of energy” was one of the positive approaches shared among working group members in Denver. Others included:

— “We want to provide customers with additional choice and control.”
— “We’re here; we’re trying to help you understand which options will be right for you.”
— “We believe reform can happen, that utilities can enable change.”

Energy consumers: Disinterested or engaged?

Like other shifting trends in the energy sector, the need for utilities to retool their communications strategies is being driven by changes in technology, customer expectations, and regulatory and business models.

Industry communications practices have long been rooted in customer profiles that presume passivity and disinterest — the typical customer who spends barely 10 minutes a year looking at electricity bills. But the E Source consumer survey found some customers who were much more engaged, spending an annual average of close to two hours perusing their electricity bills.

The industry also underestimates the time consumers spend thinking about energy in general — 5.5 hours per year in the E Source survey. People are now surrounded by such information on social media, a communications channel few utilities use as effectively as they might.

The result is that utilities are at a disadvantage in net metering and rate reform debates in which solar companies and advocates use social media to connect emotionally with consumers and paint utilities in a negative light.

Social media images collected by E Source dramatically underlined the gap utilities must span to catch up, especially with younger consumers. In a solar company picture posted to Facebook, an employee is seen standing on a hilltop, her arms spread wide to embrace the sun and her community seen below. Meanwhile a utility Twitter post offered up a jagged graph, charting the intermittency of solar over the course of a day.

The working group members all agreed, it’s no contest which one would get the most clicks.

Building stakeholder trust before big issues arise

The utilities around the table in Denver also encompassed a range of shifting regulatory landscapes and types of solar programs — on line or in development – providing yet more drivers for effective communications. Some utilities are just starting work on their first solar projects, while others are connecting thousands of new rooftop installations a year. Many also face new rate and regulatory reforms that will fundamentally change the way they do business and the way their customers use energy.

No single communications approach or strategy will work for all, but a number of common threads did emerge both from the working group and other workshops at the Utility Solar Conference.

— Effective communication must be an organization-wide effort. As the energy transition continues to break down traditional silos across the utility industry, effective messaging will require coordinated, cross-department strategies, rather than isolated comments filtered through the communications office. Having call center staff specifically trained and dedicated to helping customers who are exploring options for going solar can make a stronger statement than any media pronouncement.

— Communications strategies must incorporate ongoing relationship- and trust-building with industry stakeholders. These groups and individuals — from solar companies and advocates, to environmental and consumer watchdogs — are often the channels through which information on technology and rate changes is communicated to the public. To build trust and credibility, utilities must develop avenues for engaging these key stakeholders and ensuring they feel heard.

These relationships should be established and fostered before critical issues are at stake. Then, if difficult proposals are raised – such as a net metering alternative — stakeholders and customers may be more open to listening to and discussing utility perspectives, rather than automatically assuming the utility is prioritizing its own objectives.

Which utilities put the most solar online in 2015? Check out SEPA’s Solar Market Snapshot here.

— Utility narratives and strategies will also have to be flexible. For example, in preparing messaging or responses around a specific regulatory proceeding, different outcomes should be anticipated and appropriate materials developed.

— An overarching narrative — positive and proactive — about a utility’s role in the changing energy landscape can provide the structure needed to connect with specific customer and stakeholder segments. Choosing the right communications and media channels for different groups is also essential.

Clearly, social media and mobile technologies will be of increasing importance as key customer demographics shift toward millennials and future generations of energy users. One utility executive at the workshop said his company has developed a separate website where customers can find articles, stories and videos covering its solar, energy efficiency and grid modernization initiatives.

That example pretty much summarizes what the workshop was all about: building communications channels and strategies that allow utilities to help customers navigate all the changes now underway. As advanced technologies provide more customer choice and more ways to manage electric bills, the stories utilities tell must show how their industry is enabling these changes, as well as the value utilities will continue to bring to all customers.

K Kaufmann is communications manager for the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA). She can be reached at [email protected].

Alanya Schofield is director of strategy and new products at E Source. She can be reached at alanya­[email protected].