Whatever Happened to Customer Empowerment?

Written by: Sherman J. Elliott, Ablewatts, Inc., Advisory Board Member

Elliott, Sherman, Resized, April 2017 PoV

Sherman J. Elliott

The questions raised below may seem sort of mundane to the energy professionals that comprise the readership of the FRI Update.  However, we all know that these issues are still at the forefront of nearly every regulatory proceeding dealing with smart energy infrastructure.

Most consumers know how much it costs to fill their tank with gasoline every time they fill up.  They know how many miles per gallon (MPG) they get on the highway and in the city, and they’re aware of what factors affect the price of gas, such as the supply and demand of oil, refinery capacity, the operating condition of their car, OPEC, etc.

But do they have the same awareness of the cost of electricity?  Or natural gas to heat their home?  Do they know what a kilowatt hour is?  Or a therm?  Do they know how many kWh/therms they’ve used this month?  The answer is probably:  no.

Most consumers know how much they spend on gasoline per year and they pay attention to that number in making the choice for their new vehicle when the old one is beginning to cost more than it’s worth to maintain.  Can they say the same about their annual electricity or natural gas costs?  What makes the most sense to repair or replace in the home to save energy?  And when is the right time?  How much will I save?

One of the biggest problems with electricity and natural gas billing is the lack of information necessary to determine what it actually costs.  While you can see the cost of gas at the pump in real time and you know your MPG, if you have the old watt-hour or cumulative consumption meters you have no idea what your kWh or per therm consumption is until you receive your bill 30 to 45 days after you’ve consumed the electricity or gas.  Not exactly timely information.  And, to make matters worse, you have no idea what household usage is causing the most consumption.  Is it the lights?  The fridge?  The air conditioning?  Your water heater?  The furnace?  If your gas mileage declines and your cost goes up, you might need a tune up or check your tire inflation to get things back on track.  If your electric or gas bill goes up, why did it happen and what do you do?  And is that the right thing to do?

Aren’t these problems with delivering timely information to customers one of the things that Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) is designed to solve?  But even with the delivery of real time or near real time consumption data, is that enough to solve some of these questions?

As a former regulator, I can sympathize with current regulators and other stakeholders who raise concerns about the lack of customer side education and energy management tools in AMI cases that come before regulatory bodies for approval, particularly for low income/low use customers.  Everyone seems to readily understand the utility business cases for AMI but utilities (and other energy retailers) have been lacking (so far) in providing, along with the new smart hardware systems, tools with which their residential and small commercial customers can better manage their electricity usage and carbon footprint now that real time, or near real time data, can be accessed.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a resource that can help to explain the cost to produce and deliver electricity and natural gas and provide information to help reduce your monthly cost?  Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a resource that can provide timely information on the negative environmental effects of electricity and gas usage and how they can be reduced?  And do so at your convenience, whenever you want the information 24/7, in real time and on multiple platforms?

This is one of the issues I’ve been engaged in since I left the Illinois Commerce Commission in 2012, trying to make sense of the disaggregated supply chain of electricity and searching for a portal for education, information and access to an unbiased suite of solutions that can increase efficiency, lower customers’ energy costs and improve their environmental footprint.

For the last several years, I’ve been advising a team of energy sector veterans headed up by Troid Edwards that have created a company called Ablewatts, who’s initial product is a personal energy advisor, available as an online tool or an app for Android and iOS.  Ablewatts intent is to provide unbiased information that an energy customer can act on, at their convenience and on their schedule. Ablewatts is a tool that lets them know where their energy dollar spend has the most value, such as a programmable communicating thermostat or home weatherization, or purchasing energy efficient appliances and HVAC systems.

I’m happy to say that Ablewatts launched in 2017 and currently provides direct click through purchase options for advanced communicating thermostats and direct access to a utility’s incentive programs for home weatherization; energy efficient appliances and HVAC systems, links that would be very helpful for low income/low use customers.

Since I’ve left the FRI Board and the ICC, I have benefited greatly by working with the team at Ablewatts as our intent is and always has been to improve consumers’ energy awareness and provide actionable information and access to energy products and services that can improve efficiency and the environment.  And that’s not a bad idea.  As Ablewatts progresses we will continue to enable new information, new functions, and more exciting ways to save and become more environmentally conscious.  Please look us up at Ablewatts.com or in the Android and Apple App stores, try the app and let us know what you think!

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