Should we engage or disengage consumers about their energy usage?

December 9, 2016

Last month, I attended the National Distributed Energy Futures (NDEF) Conference in San Francisco. The focus of this perennial conference is on “building a better electricity grid that unlocks the value of distributed energy resources”. Yeah, that sounds like a lot of buzzwords to me too, but the core concepts explored at the conference were well in line with a lot of BERC members’ interests. In fact, I was happy to see that there were a number of UC Berkeley folks at the event – from current students to professors like Steve Weissman to alum like Merrian Borgenson – alongside the typical attendees that you’d expect such as PG&E, GE, and Siemens.

The first day of the conference explored the vision for an intelligent network platform that integrates distributed energy resources (such as solar, wind and energy efficiency) to provide consumers with efficient and reliable electricity. The second day expanded the scope to our national distributed energy future and the discussion focused on how to utilize new clean technologies/services to reduce state greenhouse gases, upgrade the electric grid, and empower consumers.

One issue particularly intriguing to me is how customer engagement is evolving. Utilities are beginning to engage customers to meet utility energy efficiency and renewable energy targets set by the state or public utilities commission. And there are companies, such as Opower, FirstFuel Software and OhmConnect, whose business models are heavily focused on engaging consumers about their energy decisions.

At the same time, there are also companies focused on ways of automating choice and allowing customers to disengageCompanies like Nest and Schneider Electric are creating smart thermostats that allow customers to “set it and forget it.” In the panel on empowering consumers, Schneider Electric asserted that they actually want to create technology that can take over operation of the home heating and cooling so “homeowners shouldn’t have to do a thing.”

This brought up the question: should we be engaging consumers about their energy behaviors and giving them choice or reducing choice and helping them automate and disengage? While these two objectives seem to compete with one another, I’d argue that maybe they aren’t as opposed as they at first seem. I believe that the engagement and disengagement of consumers need to happen at different points in time. For example, distributed energy resources companies should focus on engaging consumers to implement cleaner and more efficient energy systems, but then should enable disengagement once the solution has been successfully adopted.

In today’s world, commercial building operators have limited time to engage in actively operating the energy systems in their building(s) and the average homeowner only spends 9 minutes per year thinking about energy[1]. We need to use this limited time to focus on helping customers explore and adopt the right energy solutions. Then, once the solution is adopted, advanced energy management systems can automatically and intelligently operate the equipment on the owner’s behalf, allowing consumers to focus on other critical business operations.

It is clear that effectively deploying advanced energy solutions is a complex mission that will require different messages to consumers depending on where they are in their adoption of efficient and clean energy resources. Conferences like NDEF are important in facilitating the thinking and discussion needed to achieve this mission. I’m really excited by the potential that new energy platforms have to engage consumers about their energy choices, and allow consumers to intelligently program and automate.

Christie Howe, BERC Co-President


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