Developing Advocacy for a Smarter Grid
- Written by William F. Jones
The power grid has not had a transforming step change that is recognized by customers in 100 years. Some new capabilities and technologies have been added along the way, but at the end of the day the consumers get the same service they have been accustomed to and their parents before them. So what can we do to generate the kind of buzz around the smart grid that has accompanied quantum leaps in technology and functionality in other industries?
How does Apple do it? The i-pod, i-phone and i-pad transformed how people communicate, listen to music, live and learn. And then there are FedEx and UPS, with the package tracking systems they introduced. You may be wondering why I am expressing some envy about these non-utility companies in the context of the smart grid. Here’s why: They are examples of enterprises that introduced step changes in their respective industries and soon had customers lining up to experience their offerings—a phenomenon we are not seeing with smart grid rollouts.
As an executive with National Grid, I am responsible for delivering a $44 million dollar, two-year smart grid pilot of 15,000 smart meters accompanied by approximately 180 smart grid devices that are designed into five substations and eleven feeders within the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. Funded by ratepayers (and not the Federal government), it allows customers to opt out but offers those participating dynamic pricing alternatives and in-home energy management technologies; outreach and education programs, and a Downtown Sustainability Hub where the community can learn how to manage electricity consumption to save money and spare the environment. This pilot and many similar ones are taking place across the United States, yet I don’t sense a groundswell of demand and desire from people for the new capabilities the smart grid will bring.
Are we doing something wrong? Where is the excitement over having a smart meter and some cool technology? What about all the possibilities for better tracking and monitoring your energy usage? Wouldn’t it be great if the power grid could isolate and restore your power by self healing? These are all great benefits that many may think are futuristic, and yet they are being delivered in different ways across the country and world. At the business end, much of the challenge we have faced is how to bring a huge capital and asset investment strategy to market. Much of our time has been spent making the business case and designing pilots, filing proposals with local regulatory and going through discovery and approval.
But at the end of the day, isn’t it all about marketing the potential? When you think about companies like Apple or UPS, their strategy has been to engage first adopters. Together with beta groups of individuals looking for anything innovative and edgy, the early adopters are critical to a new product’s overall appeal. Let’s be clear: there is a distinction between customer outreach and marketing. Marketing drives the desire and excitement, initiates the need and demand, fashions an image of the potential and challenges our understanding of the possible.
As our Massachusetts pilot progresses towards rollout, and as I have participated in permitting meetings and have talked with customers, I have become aware of the gaps in how we promote the pilot. Our plan is detailed and solid with regards to the 15,000 we have asked to participate. The question becomes whether we should be actively engaging the other 62,000 in our pilot community. We need to be creating the buzz and creating the demand for this over the long run. Otherwise, we finish a project that introduces and validates the step change for customers and yet we will not have generated the market forces to progress it any further.
We also need to align behind a single simple response to all the groups suspicious of smart metering. The media loves the underdog, which can result in individuals getting a platform to convey inaccurate information not necessarily based on their own personal experience. While we cannot stop people from speaking inaccurately, we can focus our communications strategy to better inform all customers about what we are doing, and why it matters to all of them.
Our pilot borrowed a page from many market leaders by developing a Sustainability Hub. This is a storefront within the pilot community that will allow customers to visit and learn through interactive displays and knowledgeable representatives about all the pilot options and technology, and even enroll in new pilot offerings. Once completed during fall 2013, the hub will connect community and customers under one roof to provide hands-on education about our pilot, energy efficiency and emerging technologies. It will provide a venue where program participants and community members can share best practices and trade tips. Located on Main Street within one of our partner college campuses, it will be staffed by interns from local educational institutions.
We don’t need to rely just on specially trained educators and marketers. Some of our best marketing people are employees, and especially those on the front line. The meter installers, line workers, supervisors and community managers engage with customers daily. The customers expect such people to be up to date on the latest technology, including risks. Besides, employees generally have family, friends and acquaintances who are curious or can be made curious about what the smart grid means. That’s another reason we need to arm employees with the right information. I have personally experienced concerned customers making the transition from undecided to advocate just by speaking with a knowledgeable employee.
We need to come together as an industry and convey a shared sense of value, purpose, direction and opportunity for the United States with regard to smart grid. This is a long term play that needs to develop a following, a desire for the products and features, and ultimately a modernized and highly efficient electric grid. We are all winners if the market of over 140 million customers wants what our industry could deliver: a smarter, more reliable and more efficient grid.