In this is time of unusual challenges and opportunities for utilities, a recent roundtable hosted by HomeServe explored a number of issues facing the industry today. “How are Utilities, Regulators and Customers Planning for a Changing Environment?” featured a panel of industry veterans and thought leaders: Bill Flynn, Leader Energy Industry Team, Harris Beach Attorneys at Law; Ed Thomas, Executive Director, UtilityExchange.org; and Kenneth Black, former owner and chairman at E Source.

Among the issues discussed were potential effects of revenue shortfalls on energy efficiency program development and other important utility initiatives, new utility customer engagement strategies and the evolving role of regulators.

“Opportunities are limitless for utilities right now,” said Ed Thomas. “The relationship between the utility and the customer is really evolving. There’s a real opportunity here to strengthen that.”   

One of the ways to do that is to look holistically at the interplay between customers, especially low- and moderate-income households, and demand side management goals.

“Why not try and combine these two issues?” Kenneth Black said. “‘I need to focus on my demand side management goals and need to focus on my customers who are at-risk.’ And tie participation in your energy efficiency and demand response programs with some forgiveness of arrearages.”

In addition to the old standby of reliability, customers are looking at things like resiliency against climate change for the grid and their homes, enhancing safety, energy efficiency and electric vehicles, all areas in which utilities are positioned as experts.

“It’s important to note: all roads lead to the customer,” Black said. “The future utility needs to hold on to and grow their long-established customer relationships and trust they have with their customers.”

Utilities also can leverage the growing interest in distributed energy resources, electric vehicles and energy efficiency to partner with their local communities and demonstrate their commitment by investing in economic development, possibly by targeting small businesses as vendors and partners.

For many years, consumers and regulators expected utilities to simply maintain their wires and pipes and manage supply to meet demand. However, in recent years, utilities are expected to move into energy-adjacent spaces and enhance the customer experience through value-added services.

Customers are looking for new benefits, such as reducing their reliance on gasoline with electric vehicles, improving their indoor air quality or increasing their home’s resilience with battery storage systems and generators. Although flexible load programs have traditionally focused on managing devices such as water heaters and air conditioning compressors, grid-interactive devices make it easier to run them whenever the cost is lowest, the energy is greenest or the time is most convenient to avoid scheduled power outages. If utilities aren’t leveraging their expertise in these spaces, disrupters will step in.

According to Bill Flynn, technology has not only changed the industry, but it has changed the way it is regulated as well. “There is more opportunity for stakeholders outside of the utility world to get involved in the process of regulation,” Flynn said. “There’s a lot more information that utilities and regulators are taking in. We’re no longer under the radar.”

Regulators also are having more frequent dialogue and looking for engagement, so utilities need to be proactive, and let regulators and other community stakeholders know they are good corporate citizens.

“You should never take anything for granted – that regulators should just know that these (initiatives) are taking place out in the community,” Flynn said. “They don’t.”

Watch the entire roundtable discussion below. For more information about HomeServe, contact us.

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