National Grid shares smart grid customer engagement strategies


When it comes to smart grid investment, utilities and regulators must focus on involving stakeholders from the very beginning of project developments, and work to balance the costs, risks and needs of all affected parties.

It's not news that utilities have traditionally thought of customers as nothing more than ratepayers. Customers too tend to be uninterested in engaging with their energy use habits, and simply look at their bill and electricity as a given. But the fact that customers are moving in the direction of heightened engagement makes it even more difficult for smart grid projects to be pitched as appealing to all parties.

"The building of smart grid is a hugely risky task, and so it's vital to build trust with consumers by listening first and engaging from the outset with a collaborative attitude," said John Cooper, of NextWatt Solutions, during a BRIDGE Energy Group webinar held in late July.

Regulators play a role in all this, and have the high-pressure responsibility of balancing the risks of smart grid with the net benefit for customers.

"I think that this is an evolving issue in the sense that I think we are still fine-tuning and discovering what the value streams are for these investments," said Dave O'Brien, Director of Strategy and Compliance at BRIDGE Energy Group.

He added that regulators are also concerned that utility proposals for smart grid investment remain viable and sustainable over the long term.

"This is an industry about establishing very long term, stable assets," he said.

Cheri Warren, Vice President of Asset Management at Massachusetts' National Grid, estimated that the majority of smart grid infrastructure built today can expect a lifespan of 40 to 100 years.

"With each of those assets, it's really important that we are looking at the future, that we are looking at how people want to live their lives and run their businesses, and that we are trying to create the grid that's going to meet those needs," she said.

Utilities often struggle getting customer input into how to invest in the smart grid, she added.

Massachusetts, however, implemented a progressive energy policy. In 2008, state legislators passed the Massachusetts Green Communities Act, which required each electricity distribution company in the state to submit a smart grid pilot program that would involve smart meters, smart grid distribution systems and dynamic pricing programs for at least 0.25 percent of a company's customers.

National Grid chose the City of Worcester for its pilot, and proposed involving 15,000 customers in the project in order to get a statistically viable sample size, and understand the wants and needs of all residents.

"It was very important to have the customer-facing piece of this as well as the grid-facing piece of this," Warren said.

National Grid hosted a two-day summit in Worcester to get as many people involved in the process as possible, and ended up with a "Declaration of Energy Independence," which reaffirmed the city's commitment to working toward a sustainable, efficient smart grid pilot.

National Grid is now partnering with IEEE to offer these same seminars across the U.S. to help other utilities grappling with these same customer engagement issues relating to smart grid investment.

"The 21st Century has got to be defined by this collaboration between utilities, regulators and customers. We can't build the mutli-faceted, certainly financially intense and technology intense modern grid if we're not working together," O'Brien said.

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