What Will Drive Utility Revenue When Electricity Is Free?

WASHINGTON - The latest electric utility customer satisfaction survey results from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Energy Utilities report reveal that nearly every investor-owned utility saw customer satisfaction go down from 2018 to 2019. Residential customers are sending a clear message in the report: They want more transparency and control over energy usage, billing and ways to reduce costs.

With both customer satisfaction and utility revenues on the decline, utilities are facing daunting challenges to their traditional business models. That said, it is the utilities that see these changing times as an opportunity to evolve that will become the energy leaders of tomorrow, where the customer relationship is no longer defined by sales volume but instead by a utility company's ability to optimize service and deliver meaningful customer solutions.

We have seen how the proliferation of centralized and distributed renewables on the grid has already dramatically changed the cost profile of traditional generation and variability of wholesale energy prices. This signals the real cost drivers in the future will come from optimizing energy service with things like batteries, microgrids and peer-to-peer trading networks. In the foreseeable future, flat electricity rates may be the norm, or electricity might even become entirely free as services become the primary source of utility revenue.

The key to this future is technological innovation that allows utilities to better understand a customer’s unique needs and priorities and then deliver personalized, well-timed solutions that make customers feel valued and appreciated as their utility helps them save and alleviates their greatest pain points.

I predict utilities that adopt new technologies focused on customer experience and deliver continual service improvements and optimization will earn the most satisfied, most loyal customers.

To illustrate this, look at how fixed pricing today is applied for most residential customers. Unless you live in one of the states with deregulated utilities where most customers are free to choose a service provider in a competitive marketplace, fixed-rate tariffs or time-of-use tariffs might be the only rate structures you have ever known. These tariffs are often market distortions, bearing little relation to the real-time price that the utility pays on the wholesale market.

It can be easy enough to compare the rate you pay as a consumer and the market rate that utilities pay. The California ISO has a public dashboard -- as do other grid operators -- that shows the real-time marginal cost of energy. On a recent Friday, for example, a buyer in San Francisco could go to the real-time market and procure electricity at a rate of around 9.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), yet a residential customer can pay the utility PG&E between 22 cents and 49 cents per kWh, depending on usage.

The problem is that utility customers do not usually see this data or know how to interpret it in a way that helps add value to their service or drive down the cost.

This is a scenario ripe for innovation. Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are beginning to be applied to give customers the transparency and control over the energy they desire, and a new type of utility is emerging using real-time pricing signals from wholesale markets to give households hassle-free energy savings. Evolve Energy in Texas is developing a utility service model that delivers electricity to consumers at real-time market prices and connects to smart thermostats and other connected devices in the home for simple monitoring and control -- all managed via an intuitive consumer app.

My company, Bidgely, partners with utilities and energy retailers all over the world to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to customer data in order to bring transparency to their electricity bills, showing exactly where the customers’ money is going down to the appliance and offering personalized, actionable advice on how to save.

Another example is from energy management company Keewi. Its wireless outlet adaptors are revealing real-time energy usage information to Texas A&M dorm residents as well as providing students the ability to conserve energy through controlling items in their rooms from their smartphones.

These are but a few examples of innovations among many in play that answer the consumer demand for increased transparency and control over energy usage.

Electric service providers will be closely watching how consumers respond to AI-driven innovation, including providers in traditionally regulated markets. While regulated utilities have no reason to fear that their customers might sign up with a competitor, they understand that the revenues from electricity sales are going down and the deployment of distributed energy resources is going up. Both trends were reflected in a March report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (via ThinkProgress) that claimed unsubsidized storage projects co-located with solar or wind are starting to compete with coal and gas for dispatchable power. Change is coming to regulated markets, and some of that change can be attributed to customer dissatisfaction with utility service.

Like so many industries before, the utility-customer relationship is on track to become less about measuring unit sales and more about driving revenue through services and delivering the best customer value. Loyal customers are most likely to listen and follow through on the utility’s advice and to trust the utility for a wide range of energy-related products and services. Utilities that make customer experience the highest priority today will emerge tomorrow as the leaders of a new energy service era.


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