Judith Schwartz: Effectively Introducing the Smart Grid Means Communicating with People as Individuals


For most of its history, the U.S. electric power grid has been – and continues to be – heavily “analog” in nature. In that system, as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) explains, “utility companies…had to send workers out to gather much of the data needed to provide electricity…workers read meters, look for broken equipment and measure voltage” and “[m]ost of the devices utilities use to deliver electricity have yet to be automated and computerized.”  Today, that is changing fast, as the “smart grid” moves power distribution into the digital age. This rapid pace of change is something that will affect, or already is affecting, just about everyone who uses electricity. That is why utilities need to proactively engage and educate customers about what to expect and how the changes will benefit them.

First off, what is the “smart grid?”  Here’s DOE’s short introduction:

“Smart grid” generally refers to a class of technology people are using to bring utility electricity delivery systems into the 21st century, using computer-based remote control and automation. These systems are made possible by two-way communication technology and computer processing that has been used for decades in other industries. They are beginning to be used on electricity networks, from the power plants and wind farms all the way to the consumers of electricity in homes and businesses. They offer many benefits to utilities and consumers — mostly seen in big improvements in energy efficiency on the electricity grid and in the energy users’ homes and offices.

Given all these advantages, it shouldn’t be surprising that investment in the smart grid has been accelerating rapidly. For instance, ABI Research estimated that in 2012″[s]pending by utilities transitioning their networks to Smart Grid capabilities reached $23.68 billion… up 47.1% from $16.10 billion in 2011 as remaining government stimulus funds were spent in the United States and utilities around the world increased their own investments.” As impressive as these numbers are, ABI Research projects that smart grid growth has just begun, and that “spending will continue to grow over the next five years to reach $80.8 billion during 2018.”

With all that in mind, we were thrilled to have To the Point founder Judith Schwartz – who “has been on the forefront of sustainability issues, the Smart Grid, alternative energy, and the digital home” – spend some time with us at Tigercomm the other day, as part of our ongoing Scaling Green Communicating Energy Lecture Series.  We learned a lot from the discussion, and we thought that highlights were well worth sharing with a wider audience.

In this segment – the first of four – Judith Schwartz discusses the importance of communicating effectively with different smart grid consumer segments.  For instance, Schwartz explained, the low-income segment is an emerging, highly attractive, potential smart grid market, as low income families have a great deal to gain from Smart Grid adoption. As with all market segments, Schwartz emphasized that introducing people to the smart grid’s benefits begins with open, thorough, respectful, two-way communication.

If you start talking to people on a regular basis, you will see the patterns that line up with the research. So when you look at segmentations, the segments that I like to talk about, those patterns show up again and again and again. They show up across the country, they show up across the world…

Now, if you want the customer to do something, you have to speak with them and have a two-way exchange so that you as the person offering the service is listening to your customer and understanding what they’re going to care about – and it’s not the same for every person…

In addition to this general advice, Schwartz shared some thought on why the smart grid would be particularly attractive to low-income customers. In Schwartz’s view, it’s about tangible, meaningful benefits, with no downsides.

…this is one of the things that I don’t understand why there isn’t more support from the low-income advocates because it’s really good. People like that this is something that they can control, and the $20 to $30 a month that they can save is meaningful to them.They can take their kids to the movies or they can do something that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

These benefits would appear to be unmitigated positives, something that everyone would want. But first, of course, people need to know the benefits exist and are available to them.  That’s where communications and public relations are crucial and also where expert communicators like Judith Schwartz are so valuable.

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