Q & A: SGCC Assistant Director K.C. Boyce

By Ashley Hieb, Research Analyst —

The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) Consumer Symposium: Igniting Consumer Engagement is currently underway in San Antonio, Texas. Prior to the start of the event and DistribuTECH 2014, I had the opportunity to ask K.C. Boyce, Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative’s Assistant Director, some questions about the current state of the smart grid and consumer engagement.

K.C. Boyce

K.C. Boyce, Assistant Director at SGCC

Boyce joined Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative in March of 2013 as Assistant Director, where he is primary responsible for SGCC’s research program. Prior to joining SGCC, he was CTO for a startup that provided asset mapping services to communities. Before that, he served as COO/CFO for ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, where he focused on developing cutting-edge online tools for local governments to assess and manage their energy use. K.C. serves as Chair of the Decatur (Georgia) Environmental Sustainability Board and Treasurer of the Wylde Center.

Q. What do you think were the most notable smart grid consumer engagement developments last year, and what might they mean for 2014?

A. Two big trends stand out in 2013: the completion of most ARRA-funded smart grid projects and the recognition that consumers need to be better brought along on the smart grid journey with utilities.

With the completion of ARRA smart grid projects, many utilities are now actively considering how they leverage their significantly upgraded distribution technology to deliver benefits to consumers and to the utility. Though I don’t think we’ll see that question definitively answered in 2014, we will see utilities transitioning from talking about “smart meters” to talking about time-of-use, prepay, in-home devices (though those devices could be smartphones/tablets), and other smart grid-enabled technologies and services.

SGCC’s research shows that consumer awareness about the smart grid continues to stagnate, significantly lagging the pace of actual smart grid deployments. Utilities that are thinking about how to engage customers are increasingly realizing that the first step to engagement is energy/smart grid literacy. As a result, we’ve seen a flurry of efforts from the Power Over Energy campaign to SGCC’s www.WhatIsSmartGrid.org to individual utilities’ community education efforts. We think this trend will continue through 2014, and that the industry will increasingly work collaboratively on these efforts.

Q. How has the smart grid changed post-DOE funding?

A. As I mentioned in my response to the previous question, it has changed utilities’ thinking from “how do I educate customers about a meter switch-out?” to “how do we use this technology for our and our customers’ advantage?” The question of how to maximize customer benefits is, of course, something near and dear to SGCC’s mission. We have reason to believe that consumers will increasingly see benefits that they value in a post-ARRA environment.

Additionally, though this does not directly impact consumer experience, I suspect that the wind-down of government grant programs will significantly slow the pace of grid modernization efforts as the need for a much higher proportion of utility funds changes the ROI analysis. The one place this may not hold true is among municipal utilities, where we’re seeing many finally being able to make the business case for grid modernization. We think this is a result of lower costs on the hardware side coupled with a better understanding of how to drive the financial benefits of smart grid.

Q. What’s a good example of a utility that’s using smart grid data to better serve customers?

A. OG&E has had tremendous success with its SmartHours time-of-use/critical peak pricing program. Over 44,000 customers have opted in to SmartHours, and have collectively reduced load by more than 70 megawatts. In part, OG&E achieved this success by showing consumers how much they’d save based on their own usage patterns. By clicking on “How Can I Save” when visiting their account website, customers can see what they’re currently paying and compare that to what SmartHours would cost – even if they didn’t change their behavior.

Q. What do you think are some consumer benefits of the smart grid that have yet to be realized?

A. Utilities are doing a great job with smart grid technology, especially on the grid side. They have made a good start on the consumer side, providing some smart meter data online and experimenting with home energy management systems. Consumers would like to see the data turned into better information, such as “How much will I save by installing solar panels?” or “How much can I save buying an energy-efficient refrigerator?” They would also like more convenience. For example, many Texas utilities automatically email usage data and energy saving data to customers each week at no cost. About 25 percent of customers are taking advantage of this already. There’s a significant opportunity now for utilities to integrate the information and flexibility provided by the smart grid to meet these kinds of customer desires.

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