The Smart Grid Industry – Connecting with Consumers

The Smart Grid industry took an important first step in addressing a major disconnect in consumer communications strategies.  Last week at a major utility industry show, Distributech, the launch of a non-profit organization to understand consumer needs in the Smart Grid universe called the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) was announced.  This is very much needed to counteract and, in the future, avoid the public relations disasters that have developed in at least two utilities because of their smart meter deployments.  The SGCC has three main objectives:

  1.  Conduct primary research on consumer awareness, acceptance, and use of the Smart Grid
  2. Develop outreach and public education campaigns to help consumers understand the Smart Grid and its potential
  3. Develop best practices around the rollout of Smart Grid technologies

I’ve been blogging about educating consumers about the beneficial Smart Grid impacts since last year (see archived blogs for 11/16, 11/23, 12/1, 12/7, 12/21, 12/28, 1/4/2010, 2/1/2010, 3/1/2010, 3/8/2010), and it is heartening to see that this cross-industry initiative plans to build at least some of the tools and knowledge for effective consumer outreach.   And effective consumer outreach, or as I prefer to call it, enlightenment, is critically important to realizing the community-wide benefits of the Smart Grid.

Recent studies help map the enormity of the communications challenges.  A recent Harris Interactive poll revealed that 68% of respondents had never heard the term Smart Grid. Despite all the bad press, 63% had never heard of smart meters.    GE conducted a survey that put the number of Americans unfamiliar with the Smart Grid at 78%.  The Harris poll results also noted that of the32% that had heard of the Smart Grid, just over half of them think it means their electricity costs will go up.  The GE survey only found 4% that admitted to a good understanding of the Smart Grid and its impacts, and 80% of that 4% want to learn more about the Smart Grid and believe it will help the USA rely on domestic, renewable energy sources.  Hmmm.  We definitely have our work cut out for ourselves in educating the average residential electricity consumer. 

The utilities do possess some advantages, if they can leverage them.  A December 2009 TechNet survey indicated that 77% of Americans would like their utilities to help them reduce their energy consumption, and 74% of them would change their energy usage to reduce their utility bills if given technology solutions to help them.  Utilities have enormous brand recognition and can act as trusted partners with consumers to accelerate Smart Grid deployments and active consumer participation in new pricing and demand response programs. 

The SGCC stated that its members include utilities, but the initial announcement only listed consumer electronics and Smart Grid technology vendors along with the GridWise Alliance and consumer groups.  I hope we see utilities announcing their support of the SGCC, because the consumer enlightenment effort will require all the players in the Smart Grid value chain to be fully invested in the biggest challenge of all – fundamentally changing  consumers’ relationships with electricity. 

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