Communications and Customer Care

Advice for public power utilities from a self-diagnosed technophile

My name is Toby and I am a technophile. That felt good to say. Now, let me explain.

I was among the first people to get the Nest thermostat in 2011. I remember excitedly explaining to friends, family and co-workers how cool this gadget was: a stylish thermostat—created by one of the “fathers” of the iPod—that could use machine-learning to adapt to your habits and give you full home climate control from an app on your phone. I was such an early adopter that Nest—free of charge—sent technicians to my house to install the device. I gleefully monitored as the thermostat synched with the rhythm of our household and adjusted the temperature to maximize comfort and efficiency. Thrilled with how well it was working, I examined my energy bills from the year before to try and estimate cost-savings. After consulting with Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services at the American Public Power Association, I began factoring in degree days before realizing that I had gone too far down the rabbit hole.

And this was just the beginning.

My home is now enmeshed in complicated overlay of “Internet of Things” (IOT) devices, sensors and services. Every room is illuminated by smart lighting that can set a variety of scenes depending on the time of day or activity. Music zones enable me to stream or sling music wherever I am. Internet-connected cameras keep an eye on our main living space as well as our daughter’s bedroom. Web-enabled plug adapters smarten up “dumb” devices allowing remote control of tasks such as turning on the noise machine in our daughter’s room or the lights on the Christmas tree. Our trusty assistant Alexa lurks in earshot throughout the house. My smart remote control wields the power to control everything from the comfort of the couch (in case I don’t want to ask Alexa or Siri or tap my watch or phone). We are proud owners of a “smart,” Wi-Fi-enabled crockpot (I’m not kidding). It’s like the Jetsons—only a little more futuristic.

At last check—via my router’s control app—there were 24 devices connected to my home network.

I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is: Yes. I enjoy the wonderful benefits of Best Buy “Elite Plus” status.

Why Utilities Should Care

When you consider what I can only assume is a growing population of tech power-users like me, the implications for electric utilities are serious. For one, we techies are increasingly demanding products and services that are up-to-par and compatible with the other components of our connected lives. I contacted my electric utility to inquire about its Nest-compatible offerings (e.g. its Rush Hour Rewards program) and was disappointed to learn that they had nothing for me. We are interested in things that may not seem “cool” to others such as thermostats, LED bulbs, and perhaps even water heaters. And if you serve these things up to us (and we like them), we will use them and tell others about them. If you don’t serve them up to us, we will either seek them from competitors or entertain strangers who knock on our door with the newest, coolest energy solution.

Convenience and Efficiency at a Cost

While those of us with over-the-top home setups enjoy the convenience and efficiency that come along with them, we unknowingly create multiple entry points for bad actors with intentions ranging from identity theft to just being creepy. Each IOT or network-connected device represents a crack in the metaphorical wall that protects our data and our privacy. A mistake as simple as setting a bad password or unchecking a box while setting up a firewall could potentially lead to dire consequences. Further, when you zoom out and look at the population of Nest users in a utility’s service area, you begin to think about sinister ways criminals could attack the grid using this collection of customers. Imagine if on a 110-degree day in a southwestern American city, all Nest thermostats were hacked and remotely set to 60 degrees at the same time. How would that tax the grid? Imagine if—at the same moment—every other IOT device in that city was powered on and throttled to maximum energy consumption. This is an extreme, but not altogether impossible scenario. In fact, just the other day I got an “urgent security alert” email from Nest indicating that my login credentials were spotted on a leaked password database. I was instructed to immediately change my password and turn on two-factor authentication, which I did. But I still feel violated knowing someone could have potentially used my leaked credentials to access the cameras in my house.

What Utilities Can Do

It’s likely that people like me live in your community. How should electric utilities embrace them?

First off, you should try to find out who they are. This is by no means easy but can be accomplished via surveying or by simply keeping your eyes peeled and ears opened. Are there customers calling in or posting to your social media channels asking about newfangled products and services? They could represent good sounding boards or serve as participants for pilot programs. Once these influencers “buy in” to what you are offering, it is possible that they will “sell” for you in the community.

Utilities need to expand their minds on who their potential competitors and collaborators are. The ever-expanding universe of energy service providers presents ample opportunities for collaboration (not just competition). First, you need to find out what products and services your customers are asking for (e.g. rooftop solar, smart thermostats). Then, you need to conduct frank analysis to decide whether your utility has the know-how or budget to offer a related program. If not, it may be worth exploring third-party options. Not sure where to start? Ask your fellow network of more than 1,400 American Public Power Association member utilities about their experiences and recommendations.

Finally, keep in mind that your utility is perhaps the vital component of the connected home. No matter how sophisticated a customer’s in-home setup is, it can’t function for long without your service. Utilities are challenged to find ways to tout their reliability and value, and in this new environment, keeping your head down and the lights on may not be good enough.