Persistent climate change concerns, volatile energy prices and a growing awareness of technological advancement in energy are leading consumers across the globe to reconsider their role in the electric power value chain. Likewise, substantial increases in utility infrastructure investment are likely due to global demands for climate change mitigation; the need to support aging networks and generation plants; and proliferation of government stimulus plans for weakened economies.
For energy and utility companies, this presents an historic opportunity to encourage new, mutually beneficial behaviors and create business models to meet new consumer demands.
Our last report, "Plugging in the Consumer: Innovating Utility Business Models for the Future," explored the radically changing relationship between energy providers and consumers who took part in a survey conducted in late 2007. Even during the global economic downturn, progress has continued along the two dimensions shaping these changes: technology advancement and consumers’ desire for more control. Ultimately, this will result in movement of the basis of the industry to a participatory network – an interconnected environment characterized by a wide variety of grid and network technologies that enable shared responsibility and benefits. It will drive the creation of entirely new markets and products.
To continue our research about consumer expectations, we launched a followup survey in the fall of 2008. We surveyed over 5,000 customers from an expanded group of countries. This included the "core group" from our prior survey – the U.S., the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and Japan – plus Canada, Denmark, Belgium, France, Ireland and New Zealand. Our survey findings strongly suggest the historical view of customers as "like-minded" is already outdated in most places.
Encouraging New Behaviors
In our surveys over the past two years, many consumers demonstrated at least one goal associated with asserting more control over their energy usage. The features of a participatory network appeal tremendously to them, because it would offer abundant service options and information to manage energy usage according to specific goals, such as cost reduction or environmental impact.
There is not much evidence that consumers think lower rates are coming. Over half see the cost increasing at roughly the same pace as usage. Forty percent see their bills increasing more rapidly than their usage (or not decreasing as much as any reduction in usage). Six percent think their bills will increase more slowly (or decrease more rapidly) than their usage. Overall, this year’s respondents have a slightly more pessimistic view of the next five years than those last year.
Cost remains the powerful motivator behind a desire for control over energy usage and a willingness to change behavior. Four in five consumers are willing to change the time-of-day in which they perform energy-consuming housework in exchange for cost savings of 50 percent or more. With the prevalent feeling that prices will move inexorably upward and awareness of smart meters growing, over 90 percent of respondents indicated that they would like a smart meter or other tools to manage their usage, with 55 percent to 60 percent of these respondents willing to pay a one-time or monthly fee for that capability.
Consumers’ emphasis on climate change and the availability of renewable energy programs in response to this demand for more carbon-neutral products remained about the same year to year. Across the core group countries, the percentage reporting that they did not have renewable power programs available dropped to 16 percent from 21 percent in the new survey (see Figure 1). Rather than changing their answers to the affirmative, however, most of the movement was to "don’t know" (up to 50 percent from 46 percent).
According to industry experts in some of the countries surveyed, the high level of "don’t know" responses, in part, reflects doubts in some countries about the veracity of green power claims. Still, if to a larger extent many customers truly cannot answer that question, this could indicate a valuable opportunity lost to ineffective communication with customers in countries with significant renewable resources and high participation levels.
In addition to environmental concerns, the global economic downturn of 2008 is clearly having severe impact on consumers. Across the core group countries, the number of consumers paying a premium for green products and services is down 20 percent to 30 percent (see Figure 2).
This change in spending patterns also seems to influence perceptions of green power options among consumers from core group countries that do not have (or are unsure if they have) green power options. The percentage of people who say they want green power options is down slightly, falling to 78 percent in 2008 from 85 percent in 2007. But, during that one-year period, the percentage of those willing to pay an additional 20 percent or more monthly dropped by nearly two-thirds, to just 6 percent from 16 percent.
The percentage of those who have green power options and actually buy them remained about the same, however. This is not surprising given contractual commitments, significantly higher prices for nonrenewable fuels in the past year (which eliminated some of the cost differential between standard and green power), and the overall commitment to the environment expected of "green" consumers.
In "Plugging in the Consumer," we described an emerging segmentation comprised of four consumer types: passive ratepayers (PR), frugal goal-seekers (FGs), energy epicures (EE) and energy stalwarts (ES) (see Figure 3). Our latest survey results reinforce these segments as likely outcomes of current trends. Two main attributes are associated with variances in consumers’ behavior profiles:
- Personal Initiative. A consumer’s willingness to make decisions and take action based on specific goals such as cost control, reliability, convenience and climate change impact.
- Disposable Income. A consumer’s financial wherewithal to support energy-related goals. In early adoption phases, only those with sufficient resources will be able to implement new technologies and buy more expensive products.
We also found that other demographic characteristics – such as age and country of residence – affect the speed of technology adoption, ability to leverage control "behind the meter," goals embedded in accepting more responsibility for energy choices, among others.
PRs that embody a passive preference for the status quo remain the most prevalent of any of the four consumer archetypes. However, we see a remarkable transition in progress. In the past, these typically uninvolved, acquiescent customers comprised virtually 100 percent of the customer base. They represent just 31 percent of our 2008 survey respondents.
The number of more engaged and goal-oriented customers all along the income spectrum is approaching one-half of the total customer base. Frugal goal-seekers (FGs), about 22 percent of the survey population, have limited resources but strong will to change the way they use energy and manage its consumption. This group desires low-cost control of energy choices. Energy stalwarts (ES) have enough strength in both will and wallet to proactively take measures from making simple efficiency improvements to generating their own electricity. They have a clear willingness to invest in energy choices and represent about one in five consumers surveyed. Both of these groups will strongly influence the other half of consumers as they succeed in meeting their goals.
The remaining respondents (26 percent) are the EEs, who are curious but not committed. While they actually demonstrate more knowledge about their provider and options than any other group, they do not share the cost concerns or clear desire for information and control. This appears to be a matter of choice and not ignorance. While passive in some ways, this group is open to experimentation, particularly when the cost and lifestyle impact of a behavioral change are low.
In the short term, changes in customer needs will occur based on personal initiative and income. In the long run, even more radical changes may emerge as the millennial generation continues to move into adulthood and the energy customer base. By varying definitions, the first wave of these information-hungry, technology-savvy consumers is somewhere in our 25- to 34-year-old demographic grouping and fully encompasses the 18- to 24-year-old age group.
Precisely at this juncture, we see major changes in the survey results related to the ways consumers learn about companies and products, what they value and what they will pay for, as well as how they communicate with each other and the companies with which they do business. This, ultimately, may give way to new customer segments that will influence the shape of the industry in ways unimagined just a decade or two ago. To effectively determine the best strategy for a customer-focused transition to the participatory network of the future, every provider of energy or related services will need to construct an inventory of existing customer interactions with a wide variety of current and future service and product models.
In the following sections, we outline how specific consumer segments view the technology and business advances associated with key interactions.
Learning about Providers
Important messages from providers do not always reach consumers, as evidenced by consumers’ lack of awareness of available green power options (see Figure 1).
Additionally, only one in six consumers foresees a decrease in usage over the next five years, and only about a third say their provider can help them save energy despite strong efforts by the industry and governments to promote efficiency. In particular, provider messages are not reaching the youngest consumers. For example, those aged 18 to 34 are 40 percent more likely to not know if they have a choice in providers versus those 35 and older. The under-34 group also is twice as likely to not even know their provider’s name.
While all age groups will continue to rely heavily on their providers for information about energy (85 percent to 90 percent of respondents indicated this was a likely source), reliance on other sources differed starkly. Those over 55 are more than 10 times more likely to look to government for energy information than to social networks and other Web 2.0 content. Current trends also imply that those under 25 are becoming almost as likely to use the latter, rather than the former. To reach all generations, companies need to understand how different consumers tend to educate themselves about providers and their offerings with the wide variety of media available.
Not surprisingly, those aged 18 to 34 were most eager for the types of "self-service" and automated energy management that smart metering and smart grids will bring. What may be surprising, however, is that this age group – and particularly those under 25 – is the most willing to pay a stated premium for these services of approximately $100 U.S. as a one-time fee, or a monthly fee of $5 U.S. (see Figure 4).
Having a message sent to a mobile device when power is out at the consumer’s home also garnered significantly higher interest from the under-25 age group. About 30 percent were more likely than the other age groups to pay $1 per month for such a service. This finding may be related to the generally higher willingness we observed of younger age groups to subscribe to these programs, to their higher rate of ownership of mobile data devices and plans, or a combination of the two.
Investing in the Consumer
Substantial new increases in investment in utility infrastructure will come with a great deal of public, regulatory and shareholder scrutiny. All of these stakeholders will want to know how the public as a whole can benefit.
Energy and utility companies will need a strategy for aligning customer wants and needs with technology deployment roadmaps, beginning with rigorous customer segmentation and building an inventory of customer interactions. This must be followed by a program to analyze the interactions that are anticipated with each consumer segment and to assess whether existing capabilities are sufficient to leverage the new infrastructure in ways that support the new customer experience:
- Identifying customer wants and needs specific to the interactions that will be most important to each particular segment;
- Identifying the interactions that can be most effectively enhanced through participatory network deployment strategies;
- Defining new or augmented business capabilities and regulatory models that must be developed to translate technological capabilities into customer benefits;
- Determining which capabilities, if any, will be ceded to other providers for further development;
- Integrating the development of specific new business capabilities into the participatory network deployment roadmap; and
- Communicating these new capabilities clearly and effectively to all stakeholders.
The outcome of this process will lead to critical decisions about the customer-facing business capabilities on which the enterprise will focus.
Existing organizational strengths and new capabilities to be developed – one by one or in combinations – will form the basis for a broad menu of new products and services that the energy provider can offer. Each energy or service provider must be prepared to analyze its customer base to determine specific wants and needs before assessing how customers want to see new products and services emerge. After preferences are evaluated, they need to be applied to the customer interaction inventory in a way that identifies what should to be enhanced through technological improvements, regulatory change or improvements to communication channels.
This needs to be an ongoing process; customer assessment will not cease to be important once the participatory network is in place. The good news is that the data required to perform this continual assessment will be ubiquitous and arrive in real time from multiple sources of value-generating insights. But with this capability comes a challenge: finding new and powerful ways to collect, assimilate and evaluate this torrent of data in a way that will lead to inspiration for new programs and products that appeals to an expanding number of involved consumers.