Consumer engagement is critical to smart grid success.
Smart grid projects require active and expensive customer engagement. Use matching funds from a special set of federal grants to support your outreach investments. On April 15th, 2011 The United States Department of Energy (DOE) will release a notice of intent to issue funding for improving consumer communication, outreach and engagement for smart grid projects. Will your utility be ready to act? And can you position your utility to most likely win funding?

In this article, we’ll discuss why consumer engagement is critical to smart grid success, what you’ll need to do to be considered for a grant, how to prepare before the announcement date, and finally the tools, resources and information you’ll need to best position your utility for a successful grant application process.

The Consumer Education Challenge
Every utility is discovering why consumer engagement is important to smart grid project success. With or without a grant, there are two points to understand to ensure a strong consumer engagement strategy.

Smart grid will completely transform the existing utility-consumer relationship

The word “transform” is not used lightly in this context. Utilities will transform their operations, their technology, their processes, their people, and most importantly the relationships they have with their customers as the smart grid is deployed.

The conversations utilities have with your customers will change to a more consultative role possibly that of an “Energy Advisor”. Instead of just presenting the bill and providing service by being their “Energy Provider”, utilities will be expected to help their customers find ways to reduce demand, shift consumption, or enroll in alternative programs. Furthermore, the introduction of electric vehicles may introduce demands and needs not currently experienced with the existing relationship. Put another way: utilities will be expected to offer more products and services than simply electric service.

Successful smart grid projects position the customer as a “partner” through educational efforts during smart grid implementation and through new programs and offerings after the deployment.

Smart Grid project business cases require customers to take advantage of the programs enabled by smart grid deployment, including initiatives in energy conservation, interactive demand response, and time of use rates and customer usage feedback. Educating customers to alter their consumption habits and behaviors to shift peak demand is a core element of any customer outreach program.

When seeking to change customer behavior through education, you need to provide education that clearly describes the reasons for the shift. This requires transparency about the smart grid project and its impacts on the customers. Utilities must educate customers about the smart grid project, its status, what they can expect from the utility, and how their concerns will most effectively be addressed.

Specifically, if there are concerns about safety and privacy, the utility must proactively address these concerns through an open and transparent dialog with customers. Health, security, and funding concerns have arisen as issues in many projects from Maine to California. Bringing customers along in the process and educating them about how the smart grid project mitigates these risks will help lay the groundwork customer acceptance and adoption.

How Do You Get Funding?
These are all challenges the Department of Energy has recognized and soon will be offering to partially fund initiatives that enable utilities, customer advocacy and community groups to work together to ensure that smart grid programs are designed with the customer in mind.

While the DOE Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) has not been released, based on our previous experience helping utilities receive DOE grant funding, we suggest there are ten key steps you can take to prepare:

  1. Identify the partners that you will use to respond to this grant. These partners should be community and/or advocacy groups that have a mission of monitoring and improving the customer rights and experience as they interact with the utility. These groups could also be management, marketing, public relations, creative, web development, and printing firms that you have or will partner with to execute your consumer engagement program. The DOE will want to see that you are “shovel ready” with your project.
  2. Define specific communication goals and refine your messages to embrace shared objectives with your community partners. Engaging customers in smart grid discussions is difficult unless there is a personal interest or compelling story, so align your smart grid outreach with existing successful organizations and high-profile campaigns.
  3. Identify and prioritize the channels and media you will use to deliver your messages and campaign. Consider cost-effective delivery mechanisms that leverage traditional media for all customers as well as new media that might engage specific segments of your customer population.
  4. Be prepared to validate the status of your current smart grid project, and directly address any issues that have raised negative customer feedback.
  5. Prepare a list of high-level requirements as well as a road map to execute enhancements to people (additional customer service and field service training), processes (customer service, field service, DSM program design and development, etc.) and technology (customer portals, IVR enhancements, online chat, etc.). This roadmap should also explain your long-term vision (at least 10 years) for how this funding will positively impact your relationship with your customers (improved sentiment, program retention) as well as their participation in future programs (loyalty).
  6. Develop a reporting strategy that shows how you will define, measure and report consumer engagement project status and milestones (i.e. research, outreach, understanding, engagement)
  7. Revisit your project business case to highlight the areas that would be enhanced or improved through a well-funded and sustainable consumer engagement program. Highlight how the benefit of additional funding that would assist you and how that funding would be used.
  8. Develop a strategy for how your utility will match the funds necessary to receive these funds. Note that these cannot be government funds already allocated for Smart Grid or other related projects.
  9. Identify and organize a “Grant Team” that can help compile, develop and submit the information necessary for the grant. Begin developing your timelines to turn around the grant in 4-6 weeks. We anticipate these grant applications could be due as early as May 30.
  10. Register with, FedConnect and the Central Contracts Registry (CCR). This process can take up to 3 weeks if you are not already registered. You will need this to submit your grant.

For more details you can visit the DOE Announcement Here.

How West Monroe Can Help
This list may seem daunting. But there are resources you can leverage to make this grant a much less arduous task.

West Monroe Partners has a proven track record of successful DOE grant writing projects. Five of the seven grants we wrote in 2009 were accepted for Smart Grid Investment Grant funding. Additionally, we helped some utilities withdraw from the expensive and time consuming grant process after we advised them that their business cases would not pass the DOE’s stringent evaluation process.

We are very familiar with the customer-facing or impacting processes, techniques, and technologies within utilities. We also have direct experience with the strategies and tactics to organize and execute a cohesive consumer education, marketing, and community-relations plan. We’re currently helping several smart grid projects on this exact topic – helping utilities develop communications strategies and plans, as well as helping develop new customer experience methods processes as it relates to customer service, billing and customer portal designs.

We are well positioned to help you with these grants, through our combination of real world lessons learned from consumer engagements, resources to help you collect the information and data necessary to complete the grant, and professional legal, editing and copywriting on staff to make sure your grant application is as clear, concise and accurate as possible.

Please contact Dave Tilson for more information.