In the past few years, there has been a lot of lip service paid to utility consumer engagement. Some of the push comes from regulators as they task utilities to educate customers about smart grid investment. For other utilities, it is about forging new relationships to get residential customers involved in demand response or energy efficiency programs.
But what happens once people are enticed to join a program? For novel residential demand response programs, often enabled by wireless two-way thermostats, customers just sign up and then wait for the hottest days of summer. But energy efficiency programs, which are growing nationwide, are a different animal entirely.
Ratepayer-funded utility energy efficiency programs have more than doubled from 2006 to 2008 to $4.8 billion, and the programs are expected to double again by 2025, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Despite the rise in spending, many energy efficiency programs run in an antiquated IT framework, according to Jeff Soplop, director of client solutions for EnergySavvy, a startup that offers an enterprise software platform for government and utility energy-efficiency programs.
The Seattle-based company started as an online audit tool that wanted to build a better mousetrap. The founders, who came from Microsoft and Amazon, were focused on offering an audit that could be done in just a few minutes from anywhere -- “You didn’t have to go into your crawl space,” said Soplop. But the flip side is that the audit also has to provide accurate results and then engage customers to take advantage of utility programs.
EnergySavvy had some success with its online audit tool, but saw that once customers got into a program, there was a high dropout rate. Many of the utilities EnergySavvy approached still had paper-based systems, or had a proprietary software solution that only offered a point solution to one part of the energy efficiency process. For a customer who simply wants to trade in an old refrigerator for a rebate, for example, that could require several calls to the local utility to enroll in the program and plan the pickup, and then paperwork to get the rebate.
“It’s a very non-digital experience,” Soplop said of most energy efficiency programs, which have not necessarily kept up with the digital revolution.
Energy Savvy’s software platform aims to fix many problems. It starts with the audit, but then delivers those prequalified customers directly into the utility platform. Planners can engage customers to schedule full in-home audits, if that option makes sense. Contractors or other program partners can do data entry and analytics on the upgrades, and customers can sign in to a single platform to review contractors, contact customer service, sign documents or complete any other tasks related to the energy efficiency upgrade.
It sounds simple, but few other customer engagement software options manage the entire energy-efficiency program for the utility, the customer and third parties. Because utilities often have legacy systems for their energy efficiency programs, EnergySavvy works to integrate with legacy systems and can also pull in home residential modeling out of third-party systems using the HPXML standard it helped develop.
EnergySavvy differentiates itself in a busy market by being software-only; it does not work as a program implementer. Soplop said that increasingly utilities are issuing RFPs for software-only solutions, as utilities don’t want a new implementer, just a better software platform to manage the program.
Although EnergySavvy is not the program implementer, its software can help utilities think differently about their programs. When it comes to contractors, for example, utilities often offer people the entire list of available contractors for a given project. “Then there’s a paradox of choice,” said Soplop. “Many people just find it too overwhelming.” Instead of inundating people to the point of inaction, EnergySavvy suggests utilities set the software to just choose a few contractors to present to a customer.
The bulk of EnergySavvy’s contracts, which include utilities like Arizona Public Service, TVA, CPS Energy and LIPA, are around its residential offerings, but its platform can manage the full scope of energy efficiency programs, from C&I to small business to homes.
Small business, in particular, is a pain point for utilities because it can take a lot of boots on the ground -- and office paperwork -- to process energy efficiency upgrades. EnergySavvy says that its platform allows utilities to streamline the process, resulting in fewer visits to each site and less work on the back end.
Increasingly, EnergySavvy is also being asked for distributed generation programs, which might include rebates or other incentives, to run on the platform.
Other online audits could be seen as competition, but EnergySavvy said most don’t offer an enterprise platform. Large players like SAP and Oracle also have some point solutions, but have not yet released programs specifically to manage, analyze and report on energy efficiency programs. Other customer engagement tools, like Opower's enterprise platform, are seen as more of a potential partner.
As with other enterprise-level software platforms, half the battle is breaking down silos within a utility. Just as commercial and residential demand response programs are often served by completely different platforms and departments, the same is often true of energy efficiency programs.
“There’s not a lot of great strategic vision for how all of these programs could work together” in most utilities, said Soplop. That is just starting to change, he added. “We definitely see utilities that want to scale up significantly."
LIPA explains the advantages of EnergySavvy: