Smart Energy Use

From cable TV to Netflix: lessons for electric utilities

Let's face it: the electric utility business isn't typically seen as high tech or innovative. But new technologies ranging from the internet of things to rooftop solar and real-time demand response are significantly impacting utility services.

Cable television is also experiencing significant change on account of new technologies that customers can directly access. Is there anything electric utilities can learn from cable TV?

Cable TV was once the cool new thing. It let Dad see his beloved Cubs from far outside the Chicago viewing area. It provided access to more than the three live television stations from Indianapolis. The VCR and later, the DVR, made it even better — we could watch favorites as long as we recorded them. Today internet streaming and mobile devices have opened up whole new ways to consume TV and movies, allowing us to watch what we want, whenever and wherever we want to.

We can now find most TV programs online without a cable or satellite subscription, via free or paid streaming services like Hulu and Netflix or by buying individual episodes online. Many of us do this because we find the cable company's service poor and prices high. Devices such as Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast allow us to stream or airplay" online content, including YouTube and Facebook videos, directly to our TVs.

Streaming services are even creating content. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and other online video providers also are no longer just aggregators of the content developed for broadcast and cable networks. The online services are increasingly developing original content — think Netflix's Orange Is the New Black or Amazon Prime's Transparent. They're cutting out the cable middleman altogether.

Younger users mostly stream content on their mobile devices, on demand. They don't want to be tied to a cable or satellite provider and prefer to select and pay for (or not pay for) only the content they want. They are completely oblivious to schedules as they watch when they want to. Viewers today have unparalleled opportunities for autonomy over their viewing habits. They've shown that they can 'cut the cord' and still discuss the latest version of Game of Thrones, Downtown Abbey, or the presidential campaign debates.

We're seeing similar trends in electricity. Consumers want more choices and better price options. They want to control their energy sources and use.

Rooftop solar sounds like a good way to lower electricity bills. Inverter software, battery storage, internet-controllable appliances, electric cars, and even highly-efficient homes with net zero energy usage allow consumers much more control over their energy production and consumption. We're looking at an interactive energy experience, complete with the remote control (think smartphone)!

We see this now at the Mueller experimental neighborhood in Austin, Texas or with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District's Anatolia SolarSmart Community near Sacramento.

Community-based programs that allow individual customers to purchase electricity from utility-scale renewable projects (without incurring the risk or trouble of investing in infrastructure) are also taking hold. As new technologies come down in cost, they're being adopted not just by those who want to be "cool" but also by the mainstream.

The younger generation will think about energy in a completely different way than their parents and grandparents. They'll want to mix and match options and 'cut the cord' to inflexible utility services. Electric utilities that can cost-effectively combine and promote flexible, smart services into a desirable package will survive and thrive in this new era of access to disruptive technologies.

The challenge for us as utilities is to reimagine ourselves. We must ask ourselves "What do our customers need? How can we help them access it? As they choose unbundled high-tech offerings, what do they need from us? How can we provide those services and how should we charge for them?"

Public power has a chance to embrace innovation, deploy new technology, and provide a customized experience in accessing and using electricity. That will keep us from becoming like the cable provider people love to hate and allow us to be exciting.

We're on Netflix and still have cable, but the latter may soon have to go."