The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative is trying to do some of the tough work to understand the average person and how they feel about smart grid.

Unsurprisingly, most people have only a vague idea about what the smart grid is. But the news gets better from there, according to the SGCC’s most recent report, which takes a deep dive with a small group of consumers across the five segments (concerned greens, young America, easy street, DIY&Save, traditional) that the group defined last year.

The researchers conducted 24 in-depth interviews to better understand not only what people knew, but also how that changed once they were presented with certain information. The sample size is small, but the interviews helped to solidify the five segments defined by the SGCC and highlights common themes across all groups.

For utilities that are struggling with how to reach out to residential customers about smart grid plans, whether distribution automation or smart meters, the study should be largely reassuring.

Here are five ways that consumers across all segments got excited about smart grid:

1.  Information. At first people were largely indifferent to the concept of smart grid, but that’s because they didn’t really know what it was. It doesn’t help that even within the power industry, it means different things to different people. After people had a brief discussion about what smart grid was, most consumers said it sounded good -- especially the aspects of more control and efficiency in the system. The key is to explain smart grid in terms people understand and care about (automatic disconnect is not a selling point). 

However, others raised questions about costs to the upgrades, so utilities must be careful to spell out cost/benefits and PUCs need to ensure that cost savings are passed on (not just to investors). Clear, detailed information could be all it takes to win over the majority of consumers, and yet some utilities still seem incapable of providing that when filing smart grid cases. Although some utilities are segmenting their customers to provide information, there is still a long way to go.

2.  Control. Information about energy use and access to different pricing options was a notion that all groups liked, and yet control is not highlighted enough by utilities. People love choice and control, something that most consumers do not feel they have when it comes to their electricity. If utilities can offer pricing options and access to web portals as smart meters are installed, it will go a long way toward winning support. Adding in home controls options, which security companies are successfully doing right now, also helps.

3.  Pricing options. One of the biggest surprises of the report was the overall enthusiasm for various pricing options, whether time-of-use or peak time rebate. Few customers liked the idea of mandatory pricing, because no one likes the idea of being forced into programs. However, people liked the idea of saving money and cutting down on peak when they are given information about peak load being powered by expensive, often dirty, power plants. The responses show that utilities should offer different peak programs for different types of customers.

Ideally, the programs will come with some sort of price guarantee if customers don’t save money and customers will be guided based on their personal electricity use to choose the best rate. “There is some mythology that people don’t want tiered structure pricing,” said Patty Durand, executive director of SGCC.  “But our research doesn’t support that.”

4.  Keeping the lights on. Utilities talk about reliability, but rarely translate that into real-world experience. For instance, it’s downright outdated that many customers still need to call their utility to report an outage. If people are told there is technology that will make outages shorter and can even prevent them from being so widespread, most people can get behind that.

For Young America and Concerned Greens, ability to connect to renewable energy was also a driver. Most consumers also like the idea that a smart grid will reduce the need for more power plants.

5.  The grid is really old. Some of the most persuasive statements were related to the fact that the grid is outdated, and upgrading it will allow it to meet the 21st century demands of sensitive electronics and will help the U.S. compete in the global market. It sounds so basic, but most people simply don’t think about how power is delivered -- until the power goes out.

'Smart grid' is ultimately a cute term for upgrading the power grid to meet future power needs. Explaining in consumer-friendly terms what those power needs are and how that helps both individuals and the country are messages that nearly everyone can get behind.