As the smart grid gets deployed, utility-customer relationships that have been relatively unchanged for decades are about to revolutionized. Providing two-way information flow and putting more decision-making ability and control in the hands of the consumer is critical. And with that comes more responsibilities on the part of the utilities to service those consumers. Those were some of the recurring themes at the recent Energy Central webinar, “Reshaping the Customer Relationship through Smart Grid,” sponsored by SAP.
From the utility perspective the operations benefits of smart grid are well known: fewer estimated meter reads; remote hookup and disconnect capabilities; fewer service status calls; outage protections; the advent of dynamic priding programs; energy management in the home; and a few others.
But there are brand new operational issues as well, pointed out by Lisa Olmstead, vice president of customer care, Commonwealth Edison in northern Illinois. “We know that new and more complex pricing programs are going to require changes to our bill format, and anytime we change a bill format we’re going to generate calls to our center. Those calls will be long as we explain all the information to our customers,” she said.
ComEd has 3.8 million customers. It is now engaged in a smart meter pilot with 131,000 units in nine towns and a portion of Chicago. Installation started in November and will continue through May.
The Salt River Project, which serves the metropolitan Phoenix area, has one of the longest-running programs that have engaged customers with the nascent smart grid. It has 950,000 customers and since 2005 SRP has deployed 460,000 smart meters. “Not only can we receive data, but we can push data for example, if there are software upgrades, we can remotely send it to the meters,” said Carrie Young, the manager of residential customer services.
Customers are also more involved in their own energy management, thanks to their smart meters. “As customers are getting more tech savvy, and willing to access self-service transactions, we have deployed ‘My Account,’ and developed online offerings. Customers can get their smart meters to give them e-notifications based on thresholds that they set.”
SRP also has the largest pre-payment program in North America, with 100,000 customers enrolled, which has greatly reduced delinquent accounts.
Paul Lau, assistant general manager, customer distribution and technologies, for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California, said the municipal utility has engaged focus groups to help determine how it will manage the emerging new customer relationships. “What we heard from our customers was they want more transparency and control, more information that leads to more efficient energy use,” he said. “We really had a vision with this game-changing technology, to see what we could do for our community.”
As customers become more familiar with the technology, lessons learned in these early stage programs will provide a knowledge base for how best to manage the shifting customer relationship as the smart grid is more widely deployed.