I recently attended and acted as master of ceremonies for the Next Generation Utilities Summit in San Antonio, which included 50 North American utility business executives as delegates. The roundtable discussion, panels, workshops and 1-on-1 meetings gave me some additional insight into the top issues on the minds of these executives.
Customer engagement continues to be one of the top concerns among North American utility executives. Discussions at the summit highlighted at least two specific areas of concern. The first was the role of social media in customer communications for outage restoration. ComEd (an Exelon operating company) related an interesting story about a major storm-caused outage that hit its service territory in the Chicago area in July, 2011 that caused nearly 1 million customer outages. Although ComEd was releasing outage status information to customers and the media via multiple communication channels the information was inconsistent across the 4-5 communication channels and was not always accurate. During this event, ComEd's customers independently used a crowd sourcing approach to outage communications by encouraging each other to tweet when their service was restored and their location to the has tag. There a virtual map was created to predict when outage would be restored next. Customers also used Twitter to identify grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations that were open for business. Going forward, ComEd will make changes to its outage communication processes and will have staff in the control center that monitor social media and participate in the on-line discussions. The industry executives agreed that:
- Customers want accurate outage information that is consistent across all communication channels
- If customers can't get this information from their utility they will use social media to generate and share this information among themselves
- Customers can and will provide useful outage information back to their utility via social media
- Utilities can't control the social media discussions but can and should participate in the discussions and influence the direction of the discussions by providing accurate information.
A second area of concern is smart meter opt-outs. This month, the 3 large investor-owned utilities in California (PG&E, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric) started offering smart meter opt-out programs to their customers as mandated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). PG&E had been voluntarily offering an opt-out program prior to the CPUC order which was used as a model for the statewide program. Currently, PG&E has 11,000 customers that have opted out. This is out of a total customer base of 9 million - which is roughly 0.1% of PG&E's customers. As with outage communications, social media played a role. In this case, the opponents of smart metering, a small but dedicated group of customers, used social media to build support for their cause and influenced the decision by the CPUC. Concerns going forward included whether or not other states and provinces (beyond California, Maine, Vermont and a few others) will adopt opt-out rules, whether utilities would be forced to offer opt-outs at no cost (following the Vermont model), and whether entire communities would be able to opt-out instead of just individual customers. Raising the opt-out issue with public utility commissions early in the process was cited as key to utility's strategies.