By K Kaufmann
Jim Rogers was in Washington, D.C. recently to speak at a conference and, because the former CEO of Duke Energy is a current member of the Board of Directors of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), staff at SEPA’s D.C. office got to sit down with him for an informal talk.
At the risk of hyperbole, it was a transformative experience. Known for pushing the utility industry to start talking about climate change and his business-savvy approach to developing renewables, Rogers’s view of his career is refreshingly modest. At least in part, he said, his success as the CEO of several utilities -- ending with his seven-year stint at Duke Energy -- was propelled by ongoing opportunities to reinvent himself and, through that process, continuously face new problems and learn new things.
Talking about the future of our energy system, he held up his cell phone. Like just about everything else, we’re going to have apps for choosing energy services, monitoring our use and paying our bills, he predicted.
Find out how utilities are going “beyond the meter” with a new customer-grid dynamic here.
It’s already happening in some developing countries, where 1.2 billion people still have no access to electricity, a situation that Rogers -- in yet another reinvention -- is now actively working to change. He told us about a start-up in Kenya that is providing pay-as-you-go electricity to customers in rural areas. Via cell phone, which almost everyone there has, customers can sign up and pay for getting electricity at certain times of day -- so kids can study at night, for example.
Rogers is also teaching a course at Duke University in which his students have to come up with business plans for start-ups aimed at bringing power to other developing countries. The mantra for Western entrepreneurs approaching these markets -- where technology transfer must align with the day-to-day realities of people’s lives -- is first, listen, then engage, educate and empower, he said.
During a very lively Q&A session, that went on much longer than the hour set aside for Rogers’ talk, I asked him if he thinks the "listen first" mantra is transferable to customer engagement strategies here in the United States.
The situation in the U.S. is different, he said, because for most Americans, energy use is a “back of the mind” issue. The average family of four spends about $3.85 a day on power, Rogers said -- well below the price of a morning latte at any urban cafe. Technology deployment -- the digitalization of the grid, distributed energy and, again, cell phones -- is going to change how people think about energy, although he believes the transformation will be gradual.
I’m not so sure about that -- which is why I asked Rogers the question on customer engagement in the first place. I’ve been thinking about electricity rate reform and the standard arguments some solar and consumer advocates raise against it -- that any move away from the volume-based rates most residential customers pay today will be too complex. Introducing time of use rates or some kind of demand charge would require consumers to be somewhat aware of their peak use, which in turn would mean they would have to think about their energy use way more than they do now.
True, U.S. consumers are not used to monitoring energy use -- in fact, we’ve been encouraged not to -- and we like our information fast and easy to understand. Indeed, cell phone in hand, we check our email, texts and Facebook pages on an almost constant basis, or our bank accounts as needed. We will stop and look up some fact or download a song or video at the drop of a hat. I’m a green geek and subscribe to more energy-related lists and websites than I can possibly keep up with -- major fear of missing out. In my spare moments you will find me checking my Twitter account and email for new developments and breaking stories.
So I have been wondering, taking Jim Rogers as my inspiration, if I can reinvent myself as an energy consumer of the future. While my electric bills are relatively modest -- I live in a one-bedroom apartment and have comparatively few kilowatt-guzzling gadgets -- I have been noticing that my monthly energy usage has been inching up, and I am curious about what appliance or behavior is causing the uptick.
Read K Kaufmann’s previous blog, “It’s time to start talking about Energy Consumer 2.0,” here.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should also say that I fall squarely in the baby boomer demographic, which means while I like being tech savvy, I can be resistant to change.
Thus far, I have signed in on my utility website, where the hourly breakdowns of my daily use have been eye-opening. What was I doing Monday at 7 a.m. that burned through 3 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of power versus Tuesday at the same time when I barely used 1 kWh? Now I want to drill down to the individual appliance level and am researching energy management apps and smart plugs.
I don’t have a smart thermostat, yet -- but if I get one, I may be able to get real-time energy data from my utility.
Like almost anything else, when you start paying attention to it, energy can get pretty interesting -- and, I suspect, just as easy to obsess over as Facebook or Twitter. That said, looking at reviews of the energy-management apps and devices now available, the technology still has a way to go till it is universally fast and easy to use and understand.
Hopefully, I will be reporting back here periodically on my progress, or lack thereof, and would be interested in stories from others grappling with their own energy awareness issues.
The energy industry is in the throes of reinventing itself, which means stakeholders across the value chain are facing new problems and must learn new things. As distributed energy technologies become even more advanced -- and provide consumers with more choices and control of their energy use -- the idea of rate structures that truly promote efficiency, reliability and benefits for customers and the grid may become less controversial.
As might the idea of energy consumers who are engaged, educated and empowered. The question is how and when the two -- customers and rate structures -- might mesh.
K Kaufmann is SEPA’s Communications Manager. She can be reached at email@example.com.