by Scott Zimmerman
People pay little attention to electricity meters. The monthly bill comes and goes. As long as there is not a noticeable rise, the use details are not interesting to consumers. With a little help from utility companies, however, consumers can learn to decipher bills, save money and be more energy-conscious.
Learning the utility vernacular that makes up the monthly bill is an important first step to becoming electricity-literate.
Customers may need to know what makes up an energy charge. That’s the fee that details the power consumed between meter readings and the amount of kilowatt-hours used on- and off-peak. Others might not understand about a demand charge. That’s the charge that documents the day and time of the customer’s highest point of consumption and how many kilowatts were being consumed at that moment. This section of the bill lists charges associated with this peak charge.
Customers may need a lesson on the annual demand charge, which specifies the customer’s highest demand during the past 12 months and then charges the user for that peak. Fees such as customer charge, transmission charge, fuel charge or public benefits fees can make up the “other charges” section of a typical electric utility bill, but the terminology for those fees varies greatly based on the utility.
With all these variables, the average consumer can feel left in the dark about energy use.
According to a recent survey of 1,700 people conducted by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), three-quarters of U.S. consumers are interested in easy ways to save power, and two-thirds said that being able to estimate a monthly energy bill would help them better manage their power usage.
One tool to help consumers monitor their power usage is the smart meter. Smart meters offer greater precision than standard meters and can transmit consumer-usage data to utilities in real time. The meters can lower utilities’ cost of operations by reducing the need for meter readers and can improve utilities’ response time to outages. At the same time, the meters enable utilities to offer flexible pricing schemes, encouraging customers to better manage energy expenses.
Many consumers are intrigued by the energy-saving capabilities of smart meters. Sixty-two percent of the participants in the BCG survey said they would actively log onto an Internet site to check power consumption weekly. Fifty-six percent would set the thermostat by time of day based on consumption and pricing information.
Utilities across the country are leveraging engagement communications technology to talk effectively with customers regarding the installation of smart meters. Automated notifications via email, voicemail and SMS text messaging can be sent to customers with installation information.
When the customer receives a text message alerting him the technician is on the way, he can simply run home and meet the technician at the door. Not only does this level of engagement vastly improve customer experience, but it demonstrates that the utility is respectful of the customer’s time. This prevents calls to the customer service center. When given a four-hour window, 80 percent of customers call the utility company within the first 10 minutes to find out where the technician is and when he will arrive.
Georgia Power experienced the benefits of engagement communications first hand during its smart meter installation process. With more than 2.25 million customers, the utility needed a way to relay important information about power interruptions to customers.
After sending a letter detailing the benefits of smart meter replacement one month before the actual changeover, Georgia Power used automated messaging to remind customers a few days before the installation that a technician would be installing a new meter.
For clients with easy access to meters, Georgia Power sent a message that reminded customers that a technician would be in their area, along with the date and time of that visit. For utility customers with meters that were difficult to access, a second message went out reminding them to be home to allow the technician access. Those calls were followed up by a call from a live customer service agent.
The automated campaign allowed Georgia Power to make 10,000 phone calls in a couple hours. By being proactive with communications throughout the installation process, the utility maintained excellent customer service without a high volume of incoming calls.
Whether utility companies are helping customers decipher their monthly bills, install smart meters or make more informed energy decisions, technology helps engage customers, transforming them into active partners in managing energy consumption and costs.
Originally published in PowerGrid International, December 2011