Posted by : Allison Eckelkamp | On : October 28, 2011

J.D. Power and Associates released a report this week, suggesting that targeting customers based on behavioral segments is key to “unlocking interest and engagement.” This is similar to a key theme in the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative report, also released this week, asserting that “attitudinal” segmentation is key.

Frankly, it’s hard to think that any business or organization would undergo a campaign without at least some understanding of their customers — an understanding deeper than whether or not they have a pool pump or central air.

J.D. Power’s survey found that wide variations in customer knowledge and behavior will present a particular challenge for utilities as they look to garner support for smart grid and smart meter deployments. (Seems somewhat obvious).

Six behavioral segments were identified in the study, which was “based on the types of smart energy activities and degree of control that diverse customer populations will undertake to manage their energy consumption, costs, and environmental impacts.”

Segments identified in the report include the “innovator,” who is willing to pay a significant price to realize environmental and financial benefits; the “automate” segment, which is willing to authorize the utility to take control of a thermostat in exchange for savings; the “indifferent” segment, whose members are not motivated to take any energy management actions; and more.

The study suggests that utilities should undertake engagement strategies that vary by customer segment so they can optimize acceptance and satisfaction with various smart grid and smart energy technologies.  But this goes beyond just how the utility communicates with the customer segments and includes the types of services and incentives that are offered.

“While customers in certain behavioral segments are keenly interested in knowing the amount of energy they use or how much money they can save by taking steps to conserve, customers in other segments want the opportunity to earn points for reducing energy use and to redeem their points for cash or merchandise,” according to J.D. Power.

I’m certain that by reading the full report, utilities will find themselves somewhat enlightened. However, I would highly encourage individual utilities to undertake their own research into behavioral segments for their respective service territories.  Surely there will be some consistencies from one region to the next, but I’m sure the variation would be significant enough to merit utility-specific research.

Photo courtesey of thanunkorn: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2352



Posted by : Allison Eckelkamp | On : October 26, 2011

The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) released on Monday its report titled “Excellence in Consumer Engagement,” based on the analysis of efforts by U.S. organizations and utilities with consumer-facing smart grid programs. As a communicator, I found myself constantly nodding my head in agreement with what I considered to be a recurring theme within the report: simplicity and common sense win.

With 10 major findings, the report left me with only a few “aha” moments, but it was a great read and wonderful reminder that getting back to communications and marketing basics might have been the recipe for successful consumer engagement all along.

Here are a few of the points I found most interesting:

The good news – utilities can handle most complaints, if they plan ahead
This is a re-assuring concept. The report stated that “utilities with customer-centric engagement programs and complaint resolution processes have responded to customer concerns and complaints effectively.”

Writers of the report encouraged utilities to undertake engagement and messaging strategies prior to the beginning of deployment and address major complaints “on a personal level.” Makes sense.  Why broadcast the negative sentiments of a vocal minority to the silent (and often complacent) majority?

Don’t over-promise — manage expectations
The second major theme in the report felt to me like common sense – “staged messaging helps manage expectations.” The report states, “Nearly all successful AMI deployments have leveraged staged messaging programs to set expectations that can be met promptly, focusing messages on deployment logistics and near-term benefits that are immediately relevant to consumers.”

Communicating near-term benefits – rather than future looking, pie-in-the-sky sentiments – makes sense to me.

Unfortunately, utilities are not alone in their efforts to reach consumers and don’t have complete control over the message. Smart grid vendors, home-energy management companies, and other interest groups often target consumers with big forward-looking promises that could conflict with this staged-message philosophy.

I’d like to see the entire industry get on board with promoting the near-term realities of smart grid. In the industry’s early excitement, many pre-mature promises were made (by the smart grid community, at large).  But, that’s marketing.

An innovative approach – leveraging employees as smart grid ambassadors
While the employee-ambassador approach to communications has been used by consumer products companies for some time, I would imagine it’s not used very often among utilities.

But the SGCC study found that “utilities that educate their employees about their smart grid activities present a core consistent message and are better prepared to handle customer complaints.”

CenterPoint uses this approach. Its “employee ambassador” program engages employees with an online smart grid course, equipping them to act as “resources and advocates in their community,” according to the study. An impressive 18 percent of employees have become ambassadors to date.

Of all the themes and findings in this report, I think this promises to be the biggest game changer – especially when you consider the potential reach employees have today, within both their in-person and social networks.

Defying intuition – bigger incentives do not mean greater enrollment
The report states that “while incentives help drive program enrollment, small incentives can be sufficient to pique consumer interest.”  The Arizona Public Service Company found that increasing a one-time direct load control (DLC) program incentive from $25 to $50 would only improve enrollment by ~25 percent.

Given shrinking budgets across the board, this should certainly be good news.

Give it some attitude – segmentation is key
Any good marketing plan includes audience segmentation. While many utilities have targeted customer groups – like those with central air or smart meters – there has been little segmentation done on the basis of demographics or attitudes for use in marketing campaigns, according to the report.  However, the SGCC report suggests that this method of segmentation could improve smart grid program performance. Common (marketing) sense suggests SGCC is right.

The remaining six
The remaining six findings can be found in detail in SGCC’s report, but are bulleted below:

  • “Fostering goodwill establishes a foundation for success”
  • “Messages about saving money are applicable to all customers”
  • “Simplicity facilitates program enrollment”
  • “Urgency and purpose spur customers to act”
  • “Utility channels can transition from service to sales”

There’s no question that engagement starts with a solid two-way communications strategy based on a clear understanding of who your consumers are and what motivates them to act. It’s promising to see so many successful undertakings highlighted in this report.

You can download the full report on SGCC’s website. Just an FYI – if you’re printing it to read on an airplane, the last 10 pages are bibliography and end notes.  You might want to save the paper.


Image courtesy of Photostock: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2125



Posted by : Allison Eckelkamp | On : October 20, 2011

It’s not the type of cloud that may require you to run the windshield wipers.

Rather, IBM has taken its smarter planet philosophy on the road and is working with Swiss utility EKZ to provide a new cloud-based app that connects the driver, the utility, the electric vehicle (EV), and the EV charging station through a smartphone (or other web-based device) application. The ultimate consumer benefits — to help ease range anxiety, ensure the user is always “topped off,” help drivers get the lowest fuel rate, and provide environmentally focused consumers with the option to choose renewable power as their fuel source.

The application provides the driver with information and control from virtually anywhere. Connected to an IBM cloud service, the app can retrieve information from the car, which sends data to the cloud via a “phonebook-sized” gadget within the vehicle. This gadget communicates a variety of stats , including fuel level (or power level), available range, vehicle location, and charging schedule. The cloud-based application can also connect to the utility to retrieve real-time cost data and tell drivers when it’s most economical to “fill up.”

According to IBM’s press release, the app “can be programmed to start battery charging at a future point in time, for example when rates are lowest or when a trip is planned.”

Leveraging cleaner energy, EKZ is programming these technologies to charge the vehicle when renewable energy is strongest. According to IBM, the app enables EV owners to “delegate the responsibility of recharging the battery to the utility provider, which can schedule charges based on the availability of renewable resources, such as sun and wind, allowing the utility to improve load balancing and prevent outages.”

Load balancing and outage prevention will be the key benefit to utilities. If EVs really take off (and some data show that this could take a while), utilities will need to understand how to manage this huge drain on the grid while still ensuring reliable, steady power to the rest of its customers. Certainly, time-of-use rates that incent “off-peak” charging could help balance the load, but understanding the actual  habits of drivers — with real-time data provided by cloud-based applications like the one IBM is developing — could prove to be even more valuable.

Here’s a video published on YouTube by IBM Research – Zurich that explains the pilot in more depth:


Image courtesy of IBM.




Posted by : Allison Eckelkamp | On : October 14, 2011

You’ve probably seen the Chevrolet commercial in which a man calls his wife, who is boarding an airplane, and asks, “Would you mind doing it again?” From an app on her smart phone, she starts her car, generating an “ooooh, sweet” response from her husband’s friend.

This is the power of the “cloud.” And the technology exists today for us to remotely manage several devices or systems in our homes (or driveway) – whether it’s security and lighting systems, or even the settings on appliances and other energy-consuming devices. Home energy management (HEM) will certainly be an emerging trend for cloud-based services and systems going forward

In fact, a new report from ON World released this week predicts that “sensor network chipset shipments will approach 100 million worldwide in 2015, enabling nearly $6 billion in cloud services for energy and home service providers.”

Directly quoted from ON World press release, some interesting findings include:

  • Cloud services for smart home applications will increase by a 103% compound annual growth rate between 2010 and 2015.
  • ON World’s survey with over 500 consumers found that 4 out of 5 are “interested” or “very interested” in applications such as security, safety, lighting and energy management.  

  • 29% are willing to spend $10 or more per month for a Smart Home cloud service.

Cost is a key factor. While many consumers might be reticent to spend hundreds of dollars for devices that manage only energy consumption, the opportunity to piggyback HEM functionality onto an existing system – like a security system – might be more appealing.

In fact, this is already happening. In August, a security company called Vivint announced a deal with Tendril to include energy management features in its existing security offering. CNET reported that for “$57.99 per month–an additional $8 a month over the security service–a customer gets a wireless thermostat, a smart plug to control lights or small appliances, and a pack of compact fluorescent bulbs.”

Because the Vivint system is connected to the cloud, a homeowner could actually alter a thermostat setting or remotely control appliances that are connected to the system from the web or a smart phone.

None of this requires a smart meter or an understanding of smart grid. However, as this functionality becomes readily available, and as more consumers get smart meters and real-time energy data, cloud-based energy-management systems could provide even more lifestyle benefits.

“Demand for energy solutions has invigorated the Smart Home market and resulted in cloud based innovations that make Smart Home services accessible for the average household,” says Mareca Hatler, ON World’s research director, in this week’s press release.  “Built on an IP based infrastructure, these Smart Home platforms present nearly unlimited services opportunities as well as the potential for disruption from new offerings that promise to deliver Smart Home solutions at even lower costs.”

The opportunities are endless. “Smart,” communications-enabled appliances and electronics are being piloted today, meaning the potential for remotely controlling devices through the cloud, whether it’s for energy conservation or sheer convenience, is almost unlimited.

Can’t you just picture the TV commercial now? A woman standing in the living room calls her husband, who’s on the golf course. “Honey, do it again.” He takes out his iPhone and turns off their energy-guzzling television.

How’d he do it? Through the cloud, of course.



Image courtesy of stock.xchng:  http://www.sxc.hu/photo/71997.




Posted by : Allison Eckelkamp | On : October 6, 2011

I was once entirely convinced that electric vehicles (EVs) might just be the “killer app” for smart grid.  But, for EVs to create a demand for smart grid technologies and applications, there first needs to be a demand for EVs.

The previous EV forecasts for electric vehicles have been good, and with President Obama’s stated goal of 1 million EVs on US roads by 2015, the concept is at least part of the American consciousness (probably more so than the concept of “smart grid”).

Additionally, EVs like the Tesla have appealed to car enthusiasts all over the world.

Why wouldn’t people like a car they can simply “plug in” at home? The benefits are clear: EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are predicted to have lower “fueling” costs (possibly equivalent to 75 cents per gallon), lessen our demand for foreign oil (by more than half with wide-scale adoption), and slash emissions (close to 30 percent) – especially if we can charge them up on wind or other renewable energies.

With smart meters, other smart grid technologies, and variable pricing plans in place, consumers could get an even better bargain if they charged during off-peak hours – like, when they’re sleeping, which is when they’re apt to plug in anyway.

Unfortunately, some EVs still leave a lot to be desired, according to consumer survey results published in a report this week by Deloitte. The survey of 13,000 people in 17 countries found that “no more than four percent of global consumers [are] likely to be satisfied with today’s electric vehicles.”

Why? To summarize Deloitte’s findings:

  • Vehicle range is an issue – Americans have the highest expectations, and only 63 percent would be satisfied with a 300-mile range. The kicker – most mass-market EVs will get about 100 miles to the charge, or twice the 50-mile-per-day (or less) commute that 77 percent of Americans now have.
  • Charging takes way too long – As a society that demands instant gratification, most American consumers (58 percent) want a two-hour charge, and 23 percent want their cars to charge in less than 30 minutes. According to Deloitte’s press release, “in all countries, only a minority viewed up to eight hours (the normal time it takes to recharge the typical batter in today’s vehicles) as acceptable.“
  • The price premium on EVs is not gonna fly – People don’t want to pay any premium on EVs;  in fact, more than 50 percent of consumers worldwide are opposed to any price premium (65 percent in the U.S.).

Why would people buy an EV? According to the survey, if fuel prices continue to rise. More than half of Americans surveyed said a price point of $4 per gallon on gas would make them more likely to consider an electric vehicle. But, if traditional cars can achieve 50 miles per gallon, the majority of consumers around the world would be less likely to consider an EV purchase.

The challenges are certainly clear. Craig Giffi, vice chairman and automotive practice leader, Deloitte LLP, stated in press release: “For the time being, the mass adoption of electric vehicles is more likely to occur in countries that are willing and able to take an aggressive policy approach that encourages and subsidizes the market. And in today’s world, with so many sovereign debt challenges, that is very likely to be a road less traveled.”

In more hopeful news …

Other announcements this week hold promise for EVs and most certainly will help us learn more about the likelihood of EV adoption, including a pilot announced by Dominion Virginia Power and a research collaboration announced between GE and Nissan.


Click here to download entire Deloitte study.

Image provided by: Paul Martin Eldridge:





Posted by : Allison Eckelkamp | On : October 5, 2011

Yesterday I blogged about diminishing venture capital investment in the grid, electric vehicle and storage sectors. Today, Jesse Berst at Smart Grid News delivered word on smart grid forecasts that’s potentially even more distressing to smart grid companies: “Leading analyst slashes smart grid forecasts.”

Industry analyst Andrew Weisel, who covers the utility and smart grid market for Macquarie Group Limited, predicts that the economic downturn will slow demand for smart grid, that demand for smart meters will decrease due to consumer “pushback” over rate hikes in France and the UK, and that DR is really struggling.  Read the piece, it’s a good one.

What does this all mean for smart grid? Historically, electrical demand has closely tracked GDP. It seems with slow economic growth, and the subsequent slow growth in energy demand, that at least some smart grid solutions are not as urgent — namely, the need for demand response. That said, other benefits of smart grid — including improved efficiency, integration of “home-grown” renewable energy, enhanced grid reliability, the potential for more consumer control, and the like — have positive implications for our global economy.

At this point in time, does the cost outweigh the benefit?



Posted by : Allison Eckelkamp | On : October 4, 2011

A new report by Lux Research shows that VC investment in energy storage, EVs and smart grids is down, but that M&A activity is way up. As investment dollars dry up, bigger conglomerates are buying start-ups on clearance to fill a market need, beef up their customer lists, and acquire valuable IP.

“As VCs have withdrawn from the smart grid, energy storage and EV sectors, they’ve left a crowded landscape of stranded, early-stage ventures without any means to finance demonstration pilots or manufacturing scale-up,” said Steve Minnihan, a Lux Research Analyst and the report’s lead author, in the company’s press release. “Not surprisingly, well-capitalized competitors and corporate players have swept in, looking to acquire valuable intellectual property, manufacturing capabilities, and client lists at bargain valuations.”

Here’s the skinny:

Mergers & Acquisitions, Up: In the first six months of 2011, M&A deals totaled $2.42 billion for these three sectors – more than twice those made in all of 2010 ($1.2 billion). In all, EV, smart grid and energy storage markets saw 13 transactions 2010; in the first six months of 2011, alone, there were 12 major transactions.

Venture Capital Investments, Down: In the first half of 2010, VC funding reached an all-time, six-month high at $1.79 billion. In the 12 months from July 2010 to June 2011, funding totaled only $1.54 billion from VCs.

Here’s hoping that as big powerhouses buy up these niche players, corporate funding is used to propel these innovations to the next level via innovative pilots and deployments.

The report, titled “Bargain Shopping – Acquisitions are Crucial as VCs Pass-Over Grid, Storage and Vehicle Ventures,” is available at: https://portal.luxresearchinc.com/reporting/research/report_excerpt/8882.


Image courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu.



Posted by : Allison Eckelkamp | On : September 30, 2011

As my introductory post, I wanted to take a moment to identify myself, define “grid” and give some general context on why I’ve created this blog in the first place.

  • Who’s Allison?  I am an under-30 female in the power industry — which, by itself, is a rarity. I am relatively new to it, but quite steeped in it. My foray into the space was with one of the global Smart Grid giants, which manufactures everything from smart meters to wind turbines. After spending time helping that company build its Smart Grid brand presence, I opted to venture off on my own, realizing (1) very few people know how to talk about this stuff and make it understandable to the masses; and (2) I do … well mostly. It’s almost impossible to understand the entire industry, given it’s scale and sheer number of stakeholders. Currently consulting in the space,  I work with one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the U.S., a home-energy-management vendor, a global energy conference organization, an energy news & analysis organization, an energy services company, and a handful of other energy-industry clients. So, I guess you could say I have some “street cred.” I spend most of my time trying to simplify energy jargon and make the stuff interesting to the “common (wo)man” — consumers, politicians, regulators, etc. On a more personal level, I am not an “environmentalist,” per se, but I do believe in protecting our Earth’s natural resources, treating the environment with respect and ensuring we leave the planet in the best shape possible for future generations. I am more of a “pragmatist” when it comes to Smart Grid — interested in the benefits of Smart Grid to society as a whole; interested in the business case behind it; interested in the economics of it.
  • So, what’s the “grid?”  I’m referring to the energy grid, or the electricity grid.  Essentially, the poles, wires, and other devices connecting a power plant to the end-consuming device. Why does it need to be smart? Oh, where to begin?! I guess you should read this blog.
  • What’s this blog about? — Mainly, I’m interested in sharing what I’m learning in the course of my day-to-day about the modernization and evolution of our electrical infrastructure. I’m not interested in the technical side, necessarily, but in the benefit side of Smart Grid — particularly to end users.

With that, I’d like to leave you with the text  from a cartoon one of my Facebook friends recently posted. This points to how important electricity is.

“Wikipedia: I know everything!
Google: I have everything!
Facebook: I know everybody!
Electricity: Without me, you all nothing.

Electricity: The boss!”

Until next time …

The image used is courtesy of Simon Howden on freedigitalphotos.net: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=404