FirstFuel built its business around virtual energy auditing, but that business is now just one piece of the puzzle for the company as it courts utilities and energy retailers in North America and Europe.
FirstFuel’s newly announced capabilities within its three software-as-a-service products are all about providing better customer intelligence to utility clients. Similar to its partner Opower's focus on the residential side of the business, FirstFuel is helping energy companies get the basics right.
“Many of our utility clients are seeing 50 percent improvement in conversion rates,” Indy Ratnathicam, VP of strategy at FirstFuel, said of conversion rates for enrolling customers in efficiency and demand-side management programs.
A significant proportion of utilities have increasingly stringent energy-efficiency and demand-side management goals. At the same time, customers are asking for more -- with questions about investing in distributed energy resources or securing an energy services provider to walk them through ever-more-complex energy needs.
To achieve better conversion rates for energy-efficiency and demand-side management programs, FirstFuel has launched an advanced propensity modeling program that helps utilities understand who is more likely to accept an offer to participate in their initiatives. “It’s kind of like a FICO score,” said Ratnathicam, explaining that it helps utilities understand how a customer may act in the future.
Another new feature helps utilities understand which customers are suitable for peak demand reduction, a tool that is particularly helpful as more utilities undertake non-wires alternative projects to offset traditional infrastructure upgrades with demand-side resources on certain circuits.
Smaller commercial customers are also an increasing focus, and so FirstFuel has beefed up its offerings for self-service options, which the small and medium-sized business sectors are more inclined to use. “[Self-service options] are driving down the cost of demand-side management and energy efficiency at scale,” said FirstFuel CEO Swapnil Shah.
Other resources are on the backend for utilities, helping customer service agents better assist commercial customers, a trend that Opower also recently addressed with its new call center analytics platform.
“Call center agents are well-intentioned…but they have five systems they’re doing acrobatics to toggle between, and none of them have answers about why a bill is high,” Opower’s CEO Alex Laskey told GTM’s Julia Pyper. "Agents have a scratch pad and are literally pulling up Weather.com to say what may have affected a bill.”
It’s not just traditional utilities that are looking to streamline backend platforms to better serve customers. “The rise of retailers has been really interesting,” said Ratnathicam. “A lot of this [product enhancement] hasn’t been for just the [investor-owned utilities].”
Ratnathicam pointed to European utility E.ON, also a strategic investor in FirstFuel, as an interesting example of a company trying to serve customers differently. “For them, customer service is not a line item in the budget,” he added. Data analytics allow customers like E.ON to engage with their large commercial customers with a higher level of intelligence and more detailed insight than in the past.
The Lexington, Mass.-based startup is providing a customer portal to more than 400,000 of E.ON’s customers. FirstFuel has more than 3 million commercial utility customers on its platform. Earlier this year, FirstFuel announced a dozen new and expanded utility partnerships, including the expansion of its business with E.ON.
FirstFuel has raised $45 million from Next World Capital, Battery Ventures, Rockport Capital, E.ON, Nth Power and Electranova Capital, a fund sponsored by EDF Group in France.
Now is the time to book business, as competition is stiff in demand-side analytics for commercial clients. FirstFuel competitors include EnerNOC, Lucid, C3, BuildingIQ, Ecova and Schneider Electric. At the same time, big players like GE’s Current and Edison Energy want to provide some of the data analytics and energy services capabilities that a utility or energy services company might provide.
At the end of the day, many of these companies are providing big-data analytics to help identify the low-hanging fruit in energy efficiency and services in the near term.
“It’s still schedule changes,” says Shah. “We’re still telling people they’re doing simultaneous heating and cooling.”