Georgia Power doesn’t just want to keep the lights on anymore. Increasingly, the Southern utility wants to build on its relationship with customers, and earn the title of trusted energy advisor.

On August 1, Georgia Power launched the Georgia Power Marketplace, an e-commerce website offering a suite of energy-saving products from smart thermostats to LED lighting. The platform is designed to integrate with customers’ electricity accounts so that rebates can be applied instantly, making the purchase of home upgrades faster and more affordable.

Currently available rebates include $100 off of the Nest Learning Thermostat and 20 percent to 30 percent off of LED lighting options.

The platform offers customers “new products and services that take their experience with us to the next level,” said Jeff Smith, energy efficiency strategy and implementation manager for Georgia Power.

“The intent of the marketplace is for us to grow in that trusted adviser role to our customers,” he said. “If they grow and become more technologically savvy, we want to grow with them. We want to have multiple channels to interconnect with them and increase customer satisfaction. We want to make sure that we have simpler ways to [encourage] participation in our energy-efficiency programs.”

In the five months since the platform launched, there have been more than 400,000 visits to the site and thousands of rebates redeemed through the marketplace. So far, the most popular products on the site have been smart and learning thermostats, LED lighting kits and advanced power strips. The website also offers home automation products, smoke detectors and water saving devices.

Georgia Power is still gathering data on the website usage, but “anecdotal evidence is showing that it's a good relationship, and that customers are really liking what they're seeing,” said Smith.

Solar platform has a slow start

Utilities across the U.S. and abroad have been grappling with how to evolve their business models as new customer-centric technologies have come to market and changed the way ratepayers use energy. Georgia Power and its parent Southern Company have been on the leading edge of reshaping the way utilities interact with consumers. E-commerce platforms in particular have emerged as an important way for utilities to engage with customers and find new revenue streams (as we've covered).

The Georgia Power marketplace isn’t the utility’s first attempt at expanding its reach into home. In the summer of 2015, the utility launched a home solar sales platform designed to help customers assess their solar potential and select from a list of vetted installers, including Georgia Power’s deregulated arm, Georgia Power Energy Services. Georgia Power launched its solar business shortly after regulators passed legislation to allow for solar leasing and power-purchase agreements.

“Our residential solar service…continues to fulfill our goal of helping customers determine if solar is right for them,” spokesperson Jacob Hawkins wrote in an email. “It is an education, consultation and installation service program -- if a customer wants to purchase solar after their consultation, we want to be able to provide accurate information to make an informed decision. If the customer is interested in installation, we will offer the option to purchase it from us.”

Since the launch of the solar program, Georgia Power has logged 15,000 visits to the solar web tool and completed consultations with more than 1,000 customers. But so far, the utility has only signed contracts with seven solar customers.

Kim Greene, chief operating officer and executive vice president at Southern Company, said last summer that “on-site solar is something folks just aren’t willing to commit to.” Georgia Power electricity rates are also about 15 percent lower than the national average, which lengthens the payback period for solar and makes the investment less attractive.

But Georgia does benefit from a lot of sun, and there are savings to be had. So it’s also possible that Georgia Power just hasn’t yet been able to figure out the best way to win solar customers. Arguably, a regulated utility may not possess the in-house skill set or motivation to market solar in the most effective way.

A reference case for other utilities

Then again, it’s still early days. Georgia Power is pioneering a new platform and testing out what works best. The Georgia Power Marketplace for home energy products is the utility’s next iteration of the concept, and could one day become an effective channel for selling solar.

The new marketplace does not currently offer rooftop solar; potential Georgia Power customers still have to go through the solar portal. Smith didn’t say if there are plans to merge the two platforms, but he did say there are plans to expand the number of marketplace offerings.

“I don't think we want to see this as a stagnant tool,” he said. “We want [the Georgia Power Marketplace] to evolve, and as new products and services come out that can benefit our customers, we would love to see this as one of many channels to offer [new products] to our customers and strengthen our relationship with them.”

For instance, Smith said Georgia Power is working closely with Nest on finding new ways to work together and update the marketplace as new technologies come to market. For Nest, the experience with Georgia Power has helped inform conversations with other utilities across the country.

“The marketplace concept has a lot of interest in it in the utility industry, but Georgia Power has been a leader in getting theirs launched, and has become a reference case for a lot of other utilities,” said David Bend, head of East Coast energy partnerships for Nest. “There's a real focus on keeping it simple for customers, and keeping Georgia Power in that trusted energy adviser role.”

The Smart Usage Rate

Georgia Power first started working with Nest in 2015 with the launch of the Smart Usage Rate, a program that gives residential customers a free Nest thermostat for switching to a time-sensitive rate plan. The relationship has since evolved to include a suite of Nest products being offered via the Georgia Power Marketplace, including Nest’s indoor and outdoor security camera, as well as the Nest Protect, a combined carbon monoxide and smoke detector.

There’s value for Nest in being included on Georgia Power’s curated list of home products. At the same time, Georgia Power benefits from the relationship with an innovative and well-known technology partner. As customers express more interest in new and exciting home energy products, Georgia Power is prepared to serve them.

“Partnering with Nest [allows us to offer] solutions faster than they would have gotten to customers in the past,” said Smith. “It's been a win for us too, through that process.”

Separate from the marketplace, Georgia Power continues to offer Nest thermostats to customers who adopt the Smart Usage Rate, which has a time-of-use component and a demand-rate component. The goal of the program, said Smith, is to teach customers about staggering their energy use to reduce demand on the grid at peak times.

The Nest thermostat was an effective marketing tool to help bring attention to the Smart Usage Rate, according to Smith. The type of customer to select a time-of-use/demand rate is likely to be technology-savvy and have an interest in learning how to manage their energy use and save money with new gadgets.

Similar to the marketplace, Nest has been able to use its experience with Georgia Power to inform the company’s work with other utilities. “There’s a lot of interest industry-wide in new rate design structures, so we're thrilled to be a part of the Smart Usage Rate,” said Bend.

Georgia Power continues to look at different rate structures and opportunities to offer them, said Hawkins.

“We know that rates aren't a one-size-fits-all” proposition, he said. “We've offered time-of-use rates for a long time. As far as a time-flat bill and flex bill and various other rate structures, I think we're going to continue to look at that.”

The ability for customers to buy home energy management products online through their utility is likely to complement the adoption of new rate plans.