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Partnership Power: How Utilities and Vendors Can Team up to Offer Better Customer Programs

Many U.S. energy stakeholders look to SEPA – including its 1,150 members – as a place to help them solve industry problems and explore collaboration opportunities. Smaller and newer companies often ask, “How can we do business – or more business – with utilities?” Utilities often ask, “How can we find out about different vendor products and services, and which might best suit our needs?”

With so many utilities, companies, products, and services zinging around amidst the industry’s rapid transformation, it can be hard to know where to begin. That’s why SEPA recently convened a roundtable discussion for an open and honest conversation about how utilities and vendors can work together more effectively.

The roundtable took place during the August meeting of SEPA’s Customer Programs Working Group. Participants representing three prominent vendors – 3Degrees, Clean Power Research, and EnergySage – and one major investor-owned utility (IOU) – PNM – shared their perspectives on and experiences with utility-vendor collaboration, including the “dos and don’ts” of forming new relationships.

Getting Utilities’ Attention and Generating Opportunities
The first step toward building utility-vendor partnerships is raising awareness. Roundtable participants discussed strategies for capturing the attention of perpetually busy utility staff members. Their recommendations include:

  • Reaching out to utilities requires perseverance – and patience. Vendors should bear in mind that, in addition to day-to-day responsibilities and priorities, utility staff are often inundated with inquiries from vendors. Don’t be too pushy.
  • Vendors should appreciate that IOUs operate in a heavily regulated environment. This means that IOUs can’t sign on new vendors or create new programs without first navigating the regulatory approval process, and potentially also issuing a request for proposals (RFP) for specific services.
  • Vendors should explain the value proposition of a service that can address specific pain points that a utility and/or its customers are experiencing.
  • Vendors should be flexible with product offerings to allow for small pilots or other products that can initiate a relationship as part of an existing utility program.
  • Vendors should consider using multiple touch points and channels to reach utility staff. One very effective strategy is to cultivate in-person relationships by attending industry conferences, working groups, and networking events.
  • Publishing case studies or white papers on utilities’ successful experience with a specific vendor and its service(s) can help elevate industry awareness of the vendor. Utilities commonly turn to such publications to learn about and utilize vendors’ services and products.
  • Staying on top of new opportunities that arise via RFPs is extremely important – but difficult to accomplish. Vendors therefore should increase their familiarity with regulatory processes, strengthen and maintain relationships with utilities, and gain a better understanding of utilities’ procurement practices.
  • Vendors’ sales and engagement teams should customize different approaches based on utility size and/or segment.

Understanding Where Utilities Need Help
When engaging with a utility, vendors should approach the conversation with an understanding of where the utility could use assistance. Insights that arose from utility staff during the roundtable include:

  • Utility strengths – especially for larger utilities – typically include program design, key performance indicators, collaboration with regulators, and planning. However, utilities often need help with program implementation (i.e., turning a concept into a reality).
  • Vendors can be extremely helpful by accelerating the timeline for launching a program after regulatory approval is achieved.

Abundant opportunities exist for partnerships between vendors and utilities – and even between utilities and multiple vendors. Roundtable participants offered recommendations for maximizing the value of industry collaboration:

  • Vendors can collaborate with one another to provide joint offerings that allow for more-comprehensive solutions. For utilities, this simplifies the overall process of seeking vendor services and products for a given program or initiative.
  • Vendors can capitalize on recommendations or testimonials from current or previous utility partners to strengthen their standing as a reputable partner.
  • Utilities can benefit from vendors with strong marketing and sales expertise, as many utilities lack these capabilities. Such vendors can serve as an extension of a utility’s own marketing team, making use of the utility’s existing marketing channels and providing expertise in marketing voluntary or premium products to customers.
  • Sharing case studies, white papers, and thought leadership with utilities can help raise awareness by spotlighting trends, emerging issues, and potential solutions.

For their part, utilities can seek guidance and recommendations directly from other utilities that have worked with specific vendors for comparable program needs. Similarly, utilities can take advantage of opportunities to join group discussions with other utilities – especially peer utilities – and vendors to discuss specific topics and needs. A trusted industry organization with convening experience can organize and facilitate these discussions, allowing utility staff to network and explore solutions that individual vendors could provide.

SEPA’s Customer Programs Working Group
SEPA launched its Customer Programs Working Group in January 2023. Co-chaired by Alaric Babej, of PNM, and Kathleen Nickerson, of 3Degrees, this group provides a space for utilities, vendors and other stakeholders to share ideas, discuss new programs, and stay informed of industry trends. It spotlights innovative clean-energy programs that expand customer choice and help utilities and customers decarbonize. These include behind-the-meter DER programs, demand-response programs, 24/7 carbon-free energy, subscription and leasing programs, and community solar. Additional focus areas include industry partnerships, pilot programs, and equity issues. More information on SEPA’s eight working groups – including SEPA’s Customer Programs Working Group – is available here. (Note: Participation in SEPA’s working groups is limited to SEPA members.)

If you’d like to share additional thoughts or ideas on utility-vendor collaboration with SEPA, please contact Rusty Haynes at [email protected].