By Margaret Lindquist | June 2020
The unprecedented number of US residents who are unemployed—combined with stay-at-home directives and home schooling—are causing increased home energy use across the board, according to Oracle Utilities Opower. Based on residential smart meter data from 23 utilities before and after stay-at-home directives, the Opower analysis shows the direct impact of the pandemic on energy consumers.
A broad Opower national survey of energy consumers in mid-April found that 83% of people spent more time at home during the month of April and 50% of those people are moderately or very anxious about an increase in their utility bills. One utility had a nearly 20% increase in energy usage, especially during the daytime when power costs are higher. This increase has created a significant challenge for utilities: how to support customers who are receiving home energy bills that in some cases are 50% higher than the same period last year.
As a result, utilities are stepping up their efforts to support customers in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Across the United States, utilities are halting nonessential shutoffs and rethinking in-home energy assessments. They’re also safeguarding their employees by running onsite medical clinics and, in some cases, even sequestering employees onsite at control centers to ensure that they can remain staffed and operational.
When the first impact of the crisis was being felt, utilities moved quickly in response. Many companies paused outbound customer communications to assess the situation and chart a new course. They began shifting their messaging toward more support, using print and digital channels and a variety of personalized communications in home energy reports, usage alerts, and weekly energy updates.
In the process, utility leaders realized one thing very quickly—people were hungry for information. For example, Opower’s survey shows that 70% of customers want high-bill alerts, but only 15% of utilities are set up to deliver them. Almost 80% of customers want energy-saving tips, but only about half of them are receiving that content. One surprising example of this newfound customer engagement: In a regular email communication to customers that also included a button that said, “Click here to see what we’re doing to keep the lights on,” 95% of the email recipients clicked that button.
“Right now, utilities are focused on making sure that as many customers as possible are aware of all of the services that they’re willing and able to provide. Many customers will need financial assistance in the months ahead.”
Consumers are paying more attention to their energy usage than they ever have. Utilities can take advantage of this awareness in three key ways:
1. Reassure worried customers that they’ll be able to get the energy they need—even during the warm summer months ahead. In times of uncertainty, the most important message that utilities can provide their customers is simple. Utilities should acknowledge that life has changed and that everyone is feeling the shift. Customers want to hear that their utility is there for the community and that the energy they need will be there every day.
“Every utility message we deliver reflects our user experience design principles,” says Paul McDonald, senior director of strategy for Oracle Utilities. “In the past months, our team has defined a new, adapted set of messaging principles for communicating with energy consumers right now. We’re helping utilities deliver messages rooted in acknowledgment, empathy, support, and advice.”2. Let people know about options for bill support. Many utility customers aren’t aware of programs that can support them financially. But as more people’s finances become precarious, the need for those programs is greater than ever. Utilities should reassure customers that they’re doing everything in their power to help customers manage their bills—by delaying shutoffs and collection activities, or by offering billing and payment assistance.
Making customers aware of assistance programs is perhaps one of the most helpful things a utility can do at this time. “Right now, utilities are focused on making sure that as many customers as possible are aware of all of the services that they’re willing and able to provide. Many customers will need financial assistance in the months ahead,” says McDonald.3. Raise awareness of energy-saving projects that can make a significant difference in home energy usage. One of the most effective ways for customers to save money on their energy bills is to upgrade their home energy equipment. In-person home energy assessments have been paused, and nobody knows exactly where and when that part of the economy will open back up, but many utilities are seeing success with virtual assessments that take minimal time to fill out. The information gathered from those assessments can be used to plan post-pandemic projects that can be completed in person.
“Utilities are trying to build up as much awareness and demand for home upgrades as they can, so that hopefully thousands of customers will be ready to start a project when the restrictions are lifted,” says McDonald. “Utilities may need to hire new employees who can get this work done—that could be a huge opportunity for unemployed people whose jobs aren’t necessarily going to come back as quickly as they might want them to.”
50% of energy customers are anxious about the rising cost of residential power.
Oracle Utilities Opower rolled out the first COVID-19 response messages within days of the first stay-at-home directive in the United States and has since created an entire library of adapted messages—free of charge to all Opower clients. In April 2020, Opower’s new technology for engaging vulnerable households became available to all Opower clients free of charge. “Utilities work with the mindset that we’re in this together, and they’ll continue to provide an essential service in the best and worst of times. As spring becomes summer, utilities will continue supporting and helping their customers to do everything possible to save energy and money,” says McDonald.