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Consumers becoming more aware of smart grid issues, offerings: survey

Knowledge about smart meters and the smart grid has risen among U.S. consumers, according to the results of a recently released survey.

The latest iteration of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative's Consumer Pulse and Market Segmentation survey found that 72% of U.S. consumers have heard of smart meters and 70% have heard of the smart grid.

The survey also showed which smart grid benefits are the most important to consumers and how willing consumers are to pay for benefits associated with the smart grid, according to the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative.

People are aware of smart grid offerings, but "they want to see the benefits that can be delivered to them," says Nathan Shannon, deputy director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative. That means "utilities are going to have to explain themselves a little more" and not just be seen as justifying a capital investment, says Shannon. "Utilities are going to have to include the benefits to consumers in their rate proposals."

In the survey, about 40% of consumers expressed an interest in most smart grid enabled offerings with 21% of those surveyed saying they have participated in at least one utility program and 13% saying they have used at least one smart grid enabled product.

The most common smart grid products consumers said they used are online bill paying, with a 40% participation rate, and energy use comparison tools and smart thermostats, which both had 9% participation rates.

Nearly 75% of the respondents said they are interested in an energy storage system that could provide backup power for their home. And over 50% said they are interested in rooftop or shared solar and programmable thermostats.

The message from consumers was that solar power is "not worth it unless paired with a viable energy storage system," Shannon says.

Respondents to the survey also showed a strong interest in products that allow the responsive tracking of their electricity use. Sixty-six percent said they were interested in programs that allow for the real-time reporting of outages, and 59% said they were interested in critical peak rebate programs.

The Consumer Pulse and Market Segmentation study was first conducted in 2011. The sixth edition, what SGCC calls the sixth "wave," was implemented in March 2017. It sampled from each of the nine U.S. census divisions to obtain 1,652 completed surveys.

The survey was last conducted two years ago, which may account for the sharp rise in awareness and engagement in smart grid issues and offerings, says Shannon. It was the first time the survey showed that a majority of U.S. consumers have an interest in smart meters and the smart grid.

The survey was also conducted through an online survey instead of through a telephone survey, which could also mean that respondents were more likely to be tech savvy, Shannon says.

The survey includes customers of investor-owned utilities, public power and cooperative utilities, and retail energy providers, so the implications are true for all types of electricity providers, says Shannon.

One of the chief lessons of the survey, though, says Shannon, is that behavioral segmentation works and consumers, once assigned to a behavioral and attitudinal segment, display predictable preferences. Age and income are not necessarily the best indicators of consumer behavior, he says.

Survey identifies five market segments

The survey identifies five market segments: status quo, technology cautious, savings seekers, movers and shakers, and green champions.

This year the survey aggregated those segments into three overarching categories.

The rarely engaged category comprises the status quo segment. The selectively engaged category comprises the three middle market segments (technology cautious, savings seekers, movers and shakers), and the always engaged category comprises the green champions segment.

The largest category, at 44%, is the always engaged group, followed by the selectively engaged group at 40% with rarely engaged, at 16%, being the smallest group.

The always engaged group shows the highest interest in utility programs and smart grid products and includes many Millennials (born between 1982 and 1999) and people who cite the environment as their top reason for saving energy.

The rarely engaged group tend to be older and are more likely to be retired and have lower incomes. As a group they are also most likely to report being satisfied with their current electricity supplier.

The middle group, selectively engaged consumers, exhibit a variety of behaviors, attitudes and demographics. The "savings seekers" and "technology cautious" cohorts in the group place a high importance on energy efficiency, but lag in awareness of smart grid technologies. The "movers and shakers" cohort in the selectively engaged group are aware of smart grid products and participate in energy efficiency programs at a high rate, but also report being the least satisfied with their utility.

One of the main conclusions the authors of the report draw is that the "real opportunity" when utilities are creating programs and are working to increase engagement is reaching the selectively engaged consumer group.

The always engaged consumers, on the other hand are "already on board," while the rarely engaged consumers tend to tune out most offers and educational messages. "We recommend stakeholders do as they ask and 'leave them alone,'" the report says.