For smart grid ever to be understood, let alone adopted, by consumers, it's going to take a whole lot more than some cool technology. IBM knows this, and so does its Global Intelligent Utility Network Coalition -- an international partnership of utilities that comes together to think about market solutions to move smart grids forward.
While GIUNC already had a Texas utility and a metering facility on its roster, it recently brought Oncor into the fold because of its advanced technology -- the company claims to have the most meters in place that can do 15-minute reads -- and its commitment to open standards. Additionally, Oncor brings a customer engagement platform to the table that will help the coalition look at best practices for getting ratepayers to understand, and then to care about, their energy usage.
It's true that Oncor has had some bumps in its AMI rollout, which recently passed the one million meter mark. (A lawsuit is still ongoing by ratepayers who feel that their new digital meters are responsible for high bills.) But Oncor offers a good case study, as well as some lessons learned, according to Michael Valocchi, VP and Industry Lead for Global Business Services, Energy & Utilities at IBM.
Make no mistake about it: Oncor was not brought in as a partner to GIUNC as a cautionary tale. Instead, innovative leadership at the utility is seen as one of its most valuable assets.
Oncor has opted not to hide under a proverbial rock as meter backlash erupted last winter when customers found that high bills coincided with smart meter installations (and record-breaking winter weather). The Texas utility has installed Brenda Jackson as its Chief Customer Officer, to get closer to the customer base.
The Texas utility has used a mobile experience center, which is essentially a road show, to demonstrate how a home uses energy (no, that space heater is not the best way to heat your home). More importantly, there is now a Smart Meter Texas Portal from the state's Public Utilities Commission, which allows any Texan with a smart meter to see their energy use from the day before rendered in 15-minute intervals.
"There is greater understanding now [about smart meters] than there was in March, but I think as more customers visit the portal, and as people talk to their friends and family, there will be even greater understanding," said Jackson.
However, one lesson GIUNC may have learned is not to wait so long before giving customers the tools they need to make use of the data that the new meters provide. "We're spending too much time talking about the meters versus the data presentation," said Valocchi. "That's the piece we missed." For instance, the web portal was only launched earlier this year, even though Oncor started rolling out smart meters in 2008.
While consumer issues are far from being the only topic that the coalition discusses, they seem to pop up in nearly every debate, from security concerns to building a business case for a true smart grid -- and not just metering infrastructure (note: nearly everyone agrees the average consumer will never care about substation automation, even though the word synchrophasor is really, really cool).
Utilities have never had to think very much about consumer behavior before, but suddenly, the need to understand and to influence their ratepayers is of utmost concern. Jackman said Oncor's mobile experience center has generally shocked consumers when they see what's really eating up electricity in their home. "And then the reaction is generally positive," she says.
IBM is not alone in trying to figure out how to engage and then change their customers' energy use behaviors. Earlier this year, Control4 announced the creation of a consumer group, and some energy management companies like OPOWER focus on analyses of consumer behavior to help design their portals.
But this is just the beginning. Expect to see more information sharing, and data, on how to engage customers, including a new round of surveys launched by GIUNC. "The behavioral side is coming," said IBM's Valocchi. "Utilities are now thinking about what they need to do to change consumer behavior."