Stay-at-home orders across the U.S. are creating a unique situation for energy providers. While overall energy usage is down with many non-essential businesses still closed, residential usage is up nearly 20%, especially at peak hours, raising consumers' energy bills.
Throughout the crisis, utilities have been working hard to keep energy flowing and make life at home livable. Every day, thousands of dedicated utility employees are continuing the work of delivering safe, reliable energy into our homes. Utilities are also working hard to help ease the burden of higher bills, and that is an area where expertise in utility data science and customer engagement can help.
From our recent work and conversations with utilities around the world, we developed this playbook of engagement best practices for this moment. It's rooted in a firm understanding of how energy patterns are changing, what energy consumers need, and how utilities can engage customers with helpful insights, advice, and programs that can help them control their energy bills.
What the data says about customer needs
Our data science team analyzed millions of data points on energy usage in March and April. This is what we found:
- COVID-19 is changing how people use energy at home. We analyzed residential smart meter data from 23 utilities before and after shelter-in-place orders. Accounting for differences in weather, we found significant changes to load shapes. At one West Coast utility, we saw a 13% increase in overall consumption, with daytime usage rising as much as 30%. The time of the peaks is changing too. Morning peaks are shifting from 7:00 a.m. closer to 9:00 a.m., perhaps due to people skipping that morning commute and school drop-off.
Change in usage (actual vs. predicted) across 20 utilities. The dotted red lines show percentage change from predicted usage for each of the 24 hours of the day. Where the dotted line falls below the black line, customers are using less energy than normal. Where the dotted line is above the black line, customers are using more energy than normal.
- Aggregate load shapes do not tell the whole story. What is driving that usage has also evolved. For instance, electric vehicle owners are showing a large sustained drop in at-home charging. That's not surprising given that people are staying home, but the magnitude of the charging drop off is steep. On a typical weekday, Opower's deep learning disaggregation model predicts EV owners typically use around 25 KWh to charge their vehicles. Since the March 16th mandate in California, that number didn't go above 5 KWh in March—a typical number for Sundays—and has steadily declined from there.
Disaggregated smart meter data shows how EV charging usage has dropped dramatically since a March 16th stay-at-home order.
- People want to hear from their energy providers. We fielded a broad national survey of energy consumers in mid-April to assess what they need right now. Among hundreds of respondents, over half reported anxiety about paying their energy bills right now, with 24% reporting extreme anxiety. The data shows more than 70% of utility customers are interested in receiving notifications of an impending high bill, but only 15% are receiving that information today. Similarly, while nearly 80% want advice on how to save energy in their home, less than half are receiving that information today.
In short: household consumption is up, customers are anxious about it, and they're not just looking to their utilities for help, they are making use of that help now more than ever. Here's what utilities can do about that right now:
Empathize, personalize, and offer help
Needless to say, this is an incredibly uncertain time for a lot of people. It's important that utility communications help ease customer anxiety. That can be as simple as acknowledging that life has changed and everyone is feeling the shift, and reassuring customers that their utility is here for their community. The energy they need will be there every day. It also means engaging with customers before they come to you for help and focusing on personalized recommendations that are relevant right now. There is real power in understanding the customer’s mindset and pre-emptively meeting their needs.
To offer the right help to the right customers, we have to look deeper than system averages and aggregate load shapes—the averages obscure the larger bills being received by the most vulnerable customers. Those bills are demanding an even larger share of those households' budgets. It's critical to reach out to customers with a high energy burden and a lower ability to pay and show them, with real numbers personalized to those households, all the ways they can reduce their bills and receive the payment assistance they need.
Rethink old models
Across industries, companies are dealing with the "new normal." Life will be different for some time, and now is the time to strategize on what that may look like. In the case of demand side management, it gives program leads an opportunity to reimagine their engagement strategies.
Take, for example, in-home energy assessments. For years, utilities have offered them as a service to help customers make smart choices about efficient products and home upgrades. Prior to COVID-19, a Midwest energy provider we work with had already moved their assessment program across two states from in-home to online. Their customers complete the home energy assessment online, then receive an energy efficiency kit tailored to their profile. Nobody ever needs to enter the home. Since moving online, this program is reaching 6X more customers than the onsite program did, with an average of 3,500 customers completing the online assessment each month. 96% of customers gave the online assessment a digital thumbs-up.
Utilities should also be considering delivery channels. High Bill Alerts, Rate Education Reports, and Home Energy Report (HER) content might be better received by certain groups of people if sent via video. Video is an increasingly powerful medium. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a one-minute video is worth 1.8 million according to Forrester Research. Forbes has also weighed in on the power of video, reporting that almost 50% of internet users watch a video before going to a store to purchase something and more than 500 million hours of video are watched on YouTube each day. This is a great time to test video strategies with energy customers.
Prepare for the long haul
We have no idea how long this situation is going to last. All signs point to a measured reopening for nearly every region in the world by early June, and remote working could roll well into the end of summer. Several high profile businesses have already announced that employees will or can work from home the remainder of the year. That's going to result in a lot of air conditioning use and even higher bills over a prolonged period of time. Making sure those customers get the information they need on how to reduce energy use right now and options for payment plans and bill assistance will become increasingly important.
There is another potential after effect here worth considering. Interest in climate change and our ability to lessen our impact is likely to grow. We've seen the anecdotes about being able to see the Himalayas in India for the first time in 30 years, the canals in Venice becoming clearer and filled with fish, and how pollution rates in larger cities are coming down. With consciousness around the negative impacts of climate change growing across the world, utilities have a golden opportunity to drive further awareness and action from customers.
Awareness is exactly the place to start. In-home upgrade programs generate deep, lasting energy savings and emissions reductions. Those programs may be paused right now, but there is nothing stopping us from using this moment to build demand for them. With deeply personalized recommendations and sophisticated marketing as core customer engagement capabilities, utilities can educate customers on how efficient products and home upgrades can save them real money and help the environment. Our clients have been using behavioral energy efficiency programs to do exactly that for years. By using every customer touchpoint to build that awareness and demand for projects, over the long-haul utilities can deliver real value to their customers, support jobs in the communities they serve and accelerate progress toward their clean energy goals.
Measure and mix it up
If it works, do it again. If it doesn't, modify or scrap it and try something different. Again, these are unprecedented times. Nobody has all the answers but analyzing results and being open to honest customer feedback can drive better outcomes. Don't be afraid to try new channels. Test messaging and headlines to see what resonates as the situation evolves.
In short, the world has changed, so must the playbook for customer engagement. Our sole focus right now needs to be on meeting customer needs and alleviating their concerns. That takes empathy, a willingness to try new things, a long-term vision for operating in the "new normal," and a mindset of constant analysis and improvement.