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A vast majority of Americans are still unaware of smart meters and the smart grid, according to two recent surveys. The surveys also suggest utilities may need to further engage and educate consumers about the potential benefits of grid modernization.

The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) recently polled 1,089 electricity customers nationwide, and the survey found that 54% of respondents had never heard of the terms “smart meter” or “smart grid,” and another 20% to 23% had heard of the terms but did not know what they mean - indicating that over 70% of consumers are unaware of smart meters and the smart grid.

The Consumer Pulse Survey Wave 3 represents SGCC’s third such undertaking since summer 2011, and SGCC president Patty Durand notes that, despite an increase in advanced metering infrastructure deployment, the notion of the smart grid remains off the public’s radar.

“We have a year’s worth of data, and within a year, there has been no change in public awareness. That was surprising and a little disappointing,” she says.

Similarly, about three-quarters of respondents in Market Strategies International’s E2 (Energy + Environment) study said they knew nothing or very little about the smart grid. The survey, which included 1,008 consumers nationwide, found that only 27% of respondents were aware of the smart grid and that 33% were aware of smart meters.

As for people familiar with the term “smart grid,” 52% of respondents in the SGCC survey revealed that their general feelings about the smart grid were favorable, followed by 26% neutral, 13% negative and 9% who did not know.

SGCC also found that general impressions of smart meters were 55% favorable and 21% neutral. Nineteen percent of the survey respondents said that a smart meter had been installed at their home. The E2 study, meanwhile, found that almost one quarter of respondents who had heard of smart meters said they had one.

Between 19% and 29% of SGCC respondents agreed that specific benefits of smart grid technology were important enough to justify an extra cost of $3 to $4 on their monthly electric bill. The two main benefits among respondents were outage prevention/faster restoration time and more connection of renewable energy sources to the grid.

“The implication is that utilities could do a better job of educating consumers by weaving more than one message together, not just going with the ‘it will save you money’ message,” Durand says.

Engage your customers
The E2 study discovered that almost two-thirds of consumers had little engagement with their utility and energy management. Jack Lloyd, senior vice president of Market Strategies International’s energy division, emphasizes that engaged customers are happier customers; they appreciate what the utility is doing for them and are more satisfied.

However, SGCC’s Durand warns that consumer engagement may be a slow process for the industry. “It’s a big shift for utilities to educate consumers. This is new territory for them,” she says. “They’ve never had to communicate with or get to know their customer base.

“Now with the Internet revolution, new wireless communications, big data, and other changes that have gone on over the past 10 years, it’s going to be slow and hard work for utilities to change their business model and to learn who their consumers are and learn how to educate them and create programs consumers want,” she adds.

Lloyd suggests several ways utilities can get the word out about the benefits of their smart grid efforts. He says utilities should develop user-friendly websites that allow people to have access to their real-time, or near-real-time, energy usage patterns. Utilities can explore advertising, such as on the radio, television or billboards. They can also play a recorded message explaining the new services and technologies while a customer call is on hold. In addition, he says utilities must create initiatives that consumers can take advantage of, such as time-of-use and peak-time programs.

Durand adds that social media is a great and emerging resource for utilities. According to the SGCC survey, 51% of respondents indicated they have one or more social media accounts. Among those with accounts, 13% said they use social media to help manage their electricity usage or get tips to enhance energy efficiency, and 12% follow or like their utility online. Furthermore, about one-third of the respondents said they plan to use social media in the future to discover ways to manage their electricity usage or gain energy-efficiency insight.

Address negative perceptions
The E2 study asked the 195 respondents who were aware of smart meters if they had read or heard about any issues or complaints being raised about the technology in the past year. Among those 195 people, issues they had heard about included accuracy (26%), privacy (21%), overcharges (17%), adverse health effects (16%) and security issues (3%).

Lloyd says that it is important not to overestimate the number of people who are hearing or sharing these concerns. “These are little complaints that aren’t gaining critical mass,” he explains. “But they’re enough to give a headache to the utility and people who are advocating the new energy technologies.”

He warns that utilities must confront negative claims. “Ignoring the argument may seem a little crazy in some cases. It’s almost like a political campaign, where the other guy criticizes you; you have to answer back, or else you’re letting the criticism go unanswered,” Lloyd remarks.

Durand says the best utilities SGCC has studied have revamped their call centers to ensure consumers are satisfied when they hang up.

“Utilities should provide concerned customers with the proper information and let them feel heard and respected,” she notes. “The utilities that did that - our research shows - had much fewer problems with consumer resistance."

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