I recently attended the Efficiency Exchange conference in Tacoma, WA along with three of my EMI Consulting colleagues. The conference brings together energy professionals across the Northwest to discuss the evolving world of energy efficiency. The phrase “Utility of the Future” has become commonplace in the industry, and this conference was no exception. The theme was woven throughout the sessions at the conference and popped up in the conversations in between. Professionals in the region are grappling with an industry that’s changing rapidly in terms of technology, policy, finance, and customer preference.
Yet, the big takeaway from this conference is that the Utility of the Future is here now. Utilities are already making strides along the path to a new utility future, and each step is reshaping the industry, making the transformation that has been talked about as if it were on the horizon a tangible reality.
At EMI Consulting, we’ve been taking a deep look at the shifts taking place as utilities transform their business models to meet customer needs in this new context. Below, we cover a few of the examples brought up at the conference that indicate an industry in transition. Innovative utilities are taking these steps as they transition—not all at once, and not all to the same degree—but each one is a clear signal to the industry of a new norm developing.
Transitioning to an Energy Platform
As Val Jenson, Senior Vice President of Customer Operations at Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), mentioned in his keynote address that ComEd is embracing the transition by serving as an energy platform. Rather than generate and distribute its own resources, ComEd envisions itself operating as a network that enables customers to connect with each other through a modern grid. In this future, ComEd would measure value by customer touches through its platform rather than through kWh sold to customers. This paradigm shift reflects ComEd’s circumstances as a utility serving a large customer base with no remaining generation assets.
Rolling out EV Fast Charging in Seattle
Seattle City Light presented on their electric vehicle (EV) strategy, which includes investment in public charging infrastructure. City Light research found vehicle charging investment to provide a net benefit to all customers and to satisfy strong customer demand for charging infrastructure. By implementing this strategy, City Light provides customers additional touchpoints with their utility around the city, creating, as a result, a new value stream for the utility. Seattle City Light is making this transformation equitably, and in a way that works with their unique urban context.
Using Data to Target Program Offerings
Every customer has distinct needs, and data is now allowing utilities to provide offerings that feel more relevant and personalized to the customer. Two representatives from Tacoma Power talked about how they are using data to segment their customers at a more granular level to better target program offerings to the people most likely to use them. For their weatherization program, for example, Tacoma Power used compiled data sources to map customers and geotargeted accounts most likely to be eligible for the program. This is one example of how Tacoma Power is leveraging customer data to replace one-size-fits-all marketing of program offerings with a more personalized scheme.
Overcoming Barriers to DR-Capable EV Charging
A Flathead Electric spokesperson talked about the obstacles his electric co-op faced in rolling out an EV program in Montana, including figuring out how to deploy public chargers with demand response (DR) capabilities. This deployment has the potential to change the customer relationship by allowing customers to participate in two-way transactions, where the customer plays a part in demand-side management through EV charging. To do this, Flathead put together a cross-functional team that brought a diversity of perspectives from across utility departments—from engineering to demand-side management to customer service. The integrated nature of this team was crucial in creating a viable program offering that enhances the customer experience.
While none of these examples alone is a silver bullet capable of transforming a utility, each is an important step in a transformation pathway that is happening right now. We are excited to be part of the Northwest’s current transition to the Utility of the Future.