Energy Customers

Posted on April 08, 2015
Posted By: Rick Barnett

Utility programs to engage energy customers about their use of energy have gone from pilot phase to standard practice over the last ten years. Unless the electricity stops flowing, few people think about being an energy customer, nor do they ask for information about their consumption patterns.

Energy customers have heard the efficiency message forever, and each one has an established pattern of energy consumption. The interest of customers was best described by Matt Wald, well-known energy writer for The New York Times: “saving energy is number 11 on people’s top 10 list of things to do, despite whatever they tell you.” Nonetheless, utilities offer engagement programs to fulfill requirements imposed by state regulatory agencies.

Engagement practitioners have stepped into a well-established energy education effort. “Save energy” messages emanate from non-profits, government, energy bills, social media, TV, and internet, making the value of the new programs difficult to assess. On 3/3/15, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE ) launched a new website dedicated to efficiency education, The addition of engagement to the efficiency chorus seems like good news, unless the new voices claim credit as if no one else is singing.

As a choice or a code requirement, energy upgrade is an element in most retrofits: a river of higher efficiency is flowing into buildings via windows, light bulbs, appliances and other products. Over the first few years of an engagement program, previously-planned upgrades could be inaccurately defined as the result of the new program.

The EIA recently predicted limited success for these behavior-based programs. The EIA’s Residential Demand Modules report includes assumptions used to predict future residential sector energy requirements. Page 4 states: “One of the implicit assumptions embodied in the residential sector Reference case projections is that, through 2040, there will be no radical changes in technology or consumer behavior”.

One type of engagement involves a technical energy audit, provided at no cost to the customer. The auditor engages the customer several times during the process. Most homes are analyzed with a blower door test, which measures leakage. More recently, thermal images showing where leakage occurs have become another auditor’s tool. The technical analysis is used to offer the customer options for eliminating thermal defects.

Repetitive house-by-house measurement of thermal performance disregards common knowledge to builders: all houses are built pretty much the same, and have similar thermal defects. Thus, blower door tests and thermal imaging just display old information in a new way. They result in the same list of retrofit recommendations that contractors have historically provided without time-consuming tests. The questionable value of this technical analysis is accentuated by the fact that few audits result in customer investment, and the leakage data only plays a small part.

In addition to looking at thermal performance, auditors offer homeowners the well-established list of higher-efficiency products (bulbs, duct sealant, furnaces, etc.), some of which include financial incentives. Efficient products are marketed for their ability to reduce future energy bills: those with the fastest “payback” get the best response from customers.

Other engagement programs involve “home energy reports”, conveying consumption data for the energy customer and their neighbors. The idea is that a competitive spirit will emerge, with neighbors competing to have the smallest energy bill. For example, one of the longest-running programs (Puget Sound Energy/PSE) uses this pitch: “see how you compare to similar homes”.

A more complete analysis of the PSE customer engagement program can be found in a study by DNV KEMA. The program is expanding engagement with a new OPower product, called “Customer Care Solutions”.

Engagement programs analyze aggregated consumption data, with all the plugs, lights, heat and equipment tallied at a single meter. Although nothing can accurately disassemble monthly meter reads, engagement programs use the data to claim that they measurably cut energy use.

281 utility engagement programs are included in ACEEE’s 12/13 report, “Field Guide to Utility-Run Behavior Programs”. Regulatory agencies credit these programs for reducing demand, as if they produced a flow of energy.

ACEEE’s “Field Guide” executive summary points to the difficulty of determining the impact of behavior programs: “human decision making and technology are often inextricably intertwined in energy efficiency programs. This entanglement makes it difficult to assign causality with respect to energy savings and to track and justify behavioral strategies”.

The report also notes, “adding to the challenge is the fact that a single agreed-upon definition of behavior does not exist” (page 2). This shouldn’t be a surprise, since the discipline is rooted in philosophy.

The “Field Guide” casts doubt on the use of the engagement tool, “behavioral science best practices”.  In a recent webinar, elevating the use of behavior science was cast as a key principle for CLEAResult, a leader in engagement programs.  Since behavior is subjective rather than scientific or objective, “behavioral science” can be viewed as an oxymoron.  Unlike OPower,  CLEAResult emphasizes conformity rather than neighborhood competition.  For example, the webinar indicated that they try to elicit questions like, “what do other smart people in my situation typically do”?

In contrast to the challenge of engaging historically rigid patterns of energy consumption, “thermal optimization” doesn’t require the customer to do anything: the home is upgraded to a level that optimizes thermal performance.

Optimization brings clear value to the customer: a highly efficient and comfortable home. By merging the thermal and structural shells, thermal defects are eliminated, and interior comfort is maintained with the least amount of energy.

If utilities want satisfied customers, they could finance optimization retrofits. Who wouldn’t want more comfort while using less energy?

Authored By:
Rick Barnett has a B.A. in psychology (UCSB) and an Interdisciplinary Master’s in Environmental Management (Oregon State University, 1981).  Before becoming a builder, Rick introduced the Oregon waste hauler industry to recycling in 1976, and over the next few years convinced many to offer recycling as a service.  Oregon has been a national leader in recycling ever since.Rick started Green Builder in 1996, and was recognized in 1998 by Sustainable

Other Posts by: Rick Barnett

Efficiency Gap - March 07, 2016
Energy Asset - January 21, 2016
After Weatherization - September 25, 2015
Saving Energy - March 10, 2015

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