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How I Became a More Engaged Utility Customer

Until recently, I was the stereotypical utility customer, totally disconnected and uninterested in my energy consumption. Honestly, I probably spent three minutes a month thinking about how much energy I consumed. My husband and I had no control or choice in our energy services because we lived in an apartment building where utilities were included in rent.

But here’s what’s ironic – I have spent the last decade researching and writing about energy. My most recent report focuses on new technology platforms of the future and how utilities can develop strategies to get customers more interested in how they use energy. Consumer Platforms of the Future: Industry Insider Interviews, co-authored by Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC), highlights industry executives from utilities and solution providers who share their insights on the challenges of engaging consumers, and best practices for designing and implementing an online portal.

The report finds that customers should have easy access to their energy data and information on what options they have to better control their energy. Customers should have options to control their energy, like actively responding to a utility alert via text to adjust their thermostat, or taking a more passive approach with a smart meter that receives a signal and automatically responds.

Consumers want easy access to easily understood information for products and services that simplify their lives.

It wasn’t until we bought a house in Maryland in the fall of 2018 that we could even think about how to manage our energy consumption — and since then we’ve had a positive experience getting acquainted with our local electric utility, Pepco. Pepco offers many opportunities for customers to become and stay engaged — both through their online portal and their main website page. They use Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), which is automated, two way communication between customer meters and their utility, with nearly 100% of their customers in Maryland, including most of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. AMI provides both Pepco and its customers access to energy data — hour by hour, which potentially saves them money and energy by allowing them to see how their costs vary based on their energy use behavior.

Functionality improvements

Based on the SEPA and SECC report findings, I’d say that Pepco has done a good job of exemplifying the key best practices for designing a portal, however, some of the information on what programs they offer only exists on their website. For example, information about different rate options, like how to enroll in demand response programs, and options for how to go solar by installing solar panels or subscribing to a community solar project is not listed on the portal, only the website. I think functionality would improve if all of this information was placed in one location.

The report also discusses providing both paper and digital formats to communicate bill and other promotional information to customers, which Pepco does. Providing both formats is important because not all customers want their utility information digitally, or vice versa. The second best practice is making the default option for program enrollment be automatic, as this significantly increases and maintains program participation. The latter is not the approach used by Pepco; instead, nearly all of their programs are on an opt-in basis.

Pepco’s online customer dashboard offers a variety of resources, including data about your household’s energy consumption and paying your bill. (Source: Pepco)

Various factors have contributed to Pepco’s decision to offer these types of customer engagement programs. Based on customer service surveys, focus groups, and social media, Pepco understands that a growing number of customers have higher expectations of their utilities, like more personalized experiences that they get from other retailers. They also have interest in sustainability and a desire to meet their customers’ needs.

Where did we begin?

Our level of engagement across Pepco’s programs is varied, likely due to how much we know about them. To help us understand why this is the case, I divided our engagement level into four categories:

  • Programs we’ve signed up for
  • Programs we are interested in but haven’t had time to sign up for
  • Programs we are unsure about because we need more information
  • Programs we are not interested in

So far, we’ve done the following:

  • Viewing and paying our energy bills online
  • Viewing our daily and hourly energy usage and billing data on a weekly basis online
  • Receiving instant rebates on energy efficient lighting
  • Enrolling in a community solar program

Out of all of these options we decided to sign up for community solar first, simply because of my passion for environmental conservation. Solar is a plentiful renewable resource that still has a great deal of untapped potential across customer segments in the US. Plus, I like the fact that it expands solar access to those who can’t afford to put solar photovoltaic panels (PV) on their rooftop or live in apartment buildings.

Although we’d like to, we just haven’t had time to schedule a home energy assessment — where a Pepco representative would come out to identify measures we could take to make our home more energy efficient. Energy efficiency improvements are the least cost, easiest way to save energy, so this is another very appealing opportunity. We would also be interested in the demand response program, but would need to decide whether or not the savings are worth the behavior changes we would have to make.

We do know, however, that we are not interested in net metering. While the thought of being able to use the actual electrons we are generating from solar and storage at our home, being energy independent to some degree, and potentially earning money for exports to the grid are all very appealing prospects, we can’t seem to warm up to the way that solar panels would look on our roof. Another option we are not interested in is programming our smart thermostat since we have erratic schedules that vary on a weekly basis. I just don’t think a device could learn our schedule to be able to make pre-set adjustments. Instead, we prefer to just make adjustments manually.

My professional experience has given me a greater level of understanding of the types of energy programs and services available, however, I know there is more we could be doing. While we are taking advantage of a few programs, I think speaking with a representative from Pepco about what else they offer would be incredibly beneficial. As a consumer, we really value the convenience of getting information, enrolling in programs, and paying our bills online. But even though I feel that my household represents a clean energy and digitally savvy segment of the population, not all of our questions are answered on the internet.

It wasn’t because of an email marketing campaign that we subscribed to a community solar program. I met a very knowledgeable marketing representative on behalf of the solar developer at an event, and he stayed in touch with me for weeks, patiently answering the slew of programmatic questions I had – even after we eventually signed up We were very impressed with this level of customer service, and my household is an example of how effective a personal approach can be.

Advances in technologies are enabling companies to create more memorable and personalized experiences for customers, and it seems like Pepco is making strides in this direction. Digital portals have become a key tool to enable utilities to more deeply and meaningfully engage with their customers, develop new business models, and create new avenues for DER deployment. As this transition continues, we look forward to further deepening our engagement.