Thursday, March 25, 2010

We've moved!

The blog, that is...  You can find our blog at www.smartgridcitizen.com/blog

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Happy Paperless Trails

In my previous post (See More E-bills, Please) I discussed some reasons to think about converting more of the paper statements we receive by (snail) mail to an e-bill format, and what utilities can do to increase their e-bill adoption rates. Here, we’ll take it a step further and address some of the other unwanted mail delivered to our homes.

When was the last time you let your fingers do the walking?

If you enjoy thumbing through the Yellow Pages and you’re aware that 99% of this information is available online, then carry on. However, if you’re like me and haven’t touched a phone book in ten years, then take a few minutes to opt-out of the annual delivery of your yellow pages. A two minute phone call to the appropriate Yellow Page distributor was all it took for me to opt-out of the distribution list. You can visit www.yellowpagesoptout.com to identify your local distributor(s) by zip code. Hat tip to Pablo Paster for providing some substance on the impact of unwanted phone books.

Got credit?

If you’re looking to cap the number of credit cards in your wallet, you might consider visiting OptOutPrescreen.com. They provide a couple different options for opting out of credit card offers. Incidentally, the average consumer is holding 5.4 credit cards in their wallet. You can find some more interesting facts at creditcards.com.

41 pounds…

According to 41pounds.org the average adult receives 41 pounds of junk mail each year. Forty-four percent (44%) of this goes to the landfill unopened. For $41.00, 41pounds.org will do the heavy lifting of contacting 20 to 30 direct mail companies on your behalf to mostly eliminate all of your junk mail for five years. They’ll even send you some pre-addressed postcards for you to send to the companies that require a signature from you. They also claim to donate more than 1/3 of their fee to community and environmental organizations.

Divide and conquer…

If you think you might like to shed something less than all 41 pounds of junk mail every year, then your best bet is to start sorting your mail. Make a few bins such as ‘junk mail’, ‘electronically preferred’, and ‘paper approved’. Then contact each institution about your preferences. Unwanted catalogs are particularly easy to cut out. Retailers that distribute catalogs often provide opt-out preference functionality on their websites. You can also cut out your mailing label (include any customer numbers printed on the label along with your address), and send it back to the company with the words, “Please remove from mailing list.”

Zumbox

When it comes to paperless mail, Zumbox is positioned as the killer app. The folks at Zumbox have completed the colossal task of creating a secure digital mailbox for every street address across the nation. Whether you know it or not, you have a Zumbox too!

Here’s how it works:
With the exception of hand-written letters and cards, most all mail starts as a digital file. This file is then printed, processed (folded, put into envelopes, addressed, stamped), and finally delivered to your home. With Zumbox, that same file can be sent to your street address. The difference however is that it’s sent online without paper or scanning to your secure mailbox at Zumbox.com.

How is Zumbox different from email?
Mail that’s delivered to your Zumbox is based on a physical street address. It’s also 100% secure. From a business perspective, these are significant distinctions from traditional email. Most businesses lack valid email addresses that correspond with all their street address listings. This is just one of the reasons it’s so challenging for businesses to go paperless. Beyond that, there are also the typical issues with tracking email deliveries. With Zumbox, businesses are assured that their mail is delivered, and that even sensitive information can be securely sent and received.

Changing 300 years of postal tradition isn’t fast or easy.
I claimed my Zumbox about a year ago, but haven’t received much mail since then. I had the chance to speak with Zumbox VP of Marketing, Rob Reed, to understand where Zumbox was headed. This is what I learned.

Rather than rolling out a nationwide campaign targeted at consumers, Zumbox intends to target neighborhoods and cities in a coordinated effort with businesses that are currently using the regular postal service to distribute their mail. In this way, consumers in the target area would receive a series of paper mail notifications from various companies such as their utility and phone company alerting them to the paperless transition, and prompting them to claim their Zumbox to retrieve further mailings. From this point forward, a regular and growing stream of mail would be sent to their Zumbox. This process would continue with the next neighborhood and city.

Changing 300 years of postal tradition will not happen anytime soon, but 2010 is sure to be a breakout year for this Paperless Postal Service. If you’d like to stay ahead of the game, you can claim your Zumbox at www.zumbox.com.

Skip the receipt, not the donut.

For those of you that would rather be entertained than educated, here’s a tip from the late Mitch Hedberg that should satisfy your sweet tooth and the environment. (Flash plugin required for viewing)
Comedy Central PresentsFriday 10pm / 9c
Mitch Hedberg - Donut Receipts
www.comedycentral.com
Joke of the DayStand-Up ComedyFree Online Games

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More E-bills, Please

“Raise your hand if you receive your utility bill by email.” This was an ad-hoc survey posed by Linda Jackman, VP of Product Management for Oracle's Utilities Division, to an audience of smart grid enthusiasts at a recent industry conference. I believe the show of hands from this ‘smart’ audience was less than half.

I happened to be in the group that raised their hands, but more importantly, the question to the audience immediately reminded me that the smart grid hoopla must be balanced by the objectives of our investments.

Investments in smart grid technologies offers many benefits which include the potential to better manage our energy usage, lower our energy bills, reduce our carbon emissions (approximately half our electrical energy is generated from coal powered plants), and protect our environment.

Requesting an e-bill over a paper bill has similar environmental benefits at virtually no cost. With an e-bill we eliminate the use of paper, and the energy required to source and process its raw materials. We eliminate the energy required to produce the paper bill and distribute it to our homes. We also eliminate the energy required to recycle or dispose of it.

I get it. Now what’s in it for me?

If there’s a rub, it’s that most of us are more concerned with cost and convenience. If an eco-friendly option isn’t more convenient or less expensive than the current method, the incentive to change is generally pretty low. For example, most of us pay at least some of our bills online because it beats writing a check, putting it an envelope, and dropping it in the mail. The billing part (e-bill) has not enjoyed the same adoption because it does not always strike us offering greater convenience.

According to Ms. Jackman, at roughly 17%, the utility industry has one of the lowest e-bill adoption percentages of any industry. In the mobile phone industry by comparison, 40 - 50% of customers receive an e-bill. In their defense, utilities provide service to a larger and more diverse base of customers. To that end, there will also be a segment of the population who find that a piece of paper in hand, just works better for them.

Six tips for increasing e-bill adoption rates

While we can expect e-bill adoption rates across all industries to grow organically over time, there are a number of things that utilities, as well other businesses, can do to boost their adoption rates.

  1. Provide customers with a high level of understanding on how your e-bill program works and provide easy access to frequently asked questions. 
  2. Accept feedback and address specific concerns such as the fear of missing a payment in the absence of a physical paper reminder. 
  3. Connect your e-bill with multiple online payment options including your website and online banking sites. 
  4. List ALL of the advantages of electronic billing to the customer. This would include convenience factors, improved service levels, and environmental benefits. 
  5. Consider additional incentives: 
    1. Financial incentives may come in the form of small monthly discounts or one-time bonus bucks for switching to a paperless bill format. 
    2. Environmental incentives might come in the form of contributions to non-profit carbon offsetters or tree planting organizations for every customer that switches to a paperless format. 
    3. Sweepstakes for cool gadgetry or Energy Star products can also be effective at driving conversions. 
  6. Give customers numerous opportunities to make the switch by widely incorporating the message into all customer communication touch-points: phone, email, invoices, web, newsletters, advertising, etc. Bottom line: make it easy! 
While we wait for more and more businesses to make it easier for us to switch to an e-bill format, take an extra moment this week to evaluate whether you would be equally served by switching any of your current paper statements to electronic versions.

Look out for a follow up piece with more ideas on reducing unnecessary mail delivered to your home.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Google Killer - Qu'est Que C'est?

If there’s a large market, you can bet that Google will be there if it isn’t already. 

Today, Google launched its own Android Smartphone called Nexus One.  Google recently turned the mapping/GIS industry on its head when it announced that it was going to provide its maps with turn-by-turn directions for free. Most people have to pay for GPS functionality.  It has also quietly upped the ante on its geolocation game with the launch of Latitude and Favorite Places.  There will be plenty more written about this elsewhere, but when you’re done reading about all the iPhone vs. Android comparisons, remember that Google’s real money is still largely generated from advertising.  Hat tip to Brian Sheehan for providing some insight:  How Google Is Moving to 'Own' Mobility.

Smart Grid Market – Entre Google


The modernization of our nation’s electrical grid, which runs from the points of power generation through to the transmission and distribution of electrical energy to homes and business, represents a trillion dollar market.  Specific opportunities along the value chain make up opportunities that run in the hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars.  Naturally, every major technology company in the world is hungry for a piece of the pie.  Google is no exception.

That Google would use its strengths to develop a Home Energy Management (HEM) solution that provides consumers with useful energy consumption data should come as no surprise.  It’s also no surprise that it can be obtained for free.  What stands out however, is that they have unabashedly entered the marketplace from a philanthropic perspective.

Here’s their angle.  Energy conservation stands as a central pillar of the smart grid movement.  Reducing our energy consumption and shifting it away from fossil fuels benefits our environment.  And, since curbing climate change is a global environmental challenge, an energy management tool falls within the mission of Google.org.

Google PowerMeter is a project of Google.org, Google's philanthropic arm, which aspires to leverage the power of information and technology to address global challenges.

When Google enters a market, you can expect that they’ll have the wherewithal to spend untold millions without a near-term profit motive.  That’s got to make business leaders on the same playing field feel uneasy.  When Google.org enters a market with no profit motive, well I imagine that’s gotta make competitors feel down right queasy.

Google dominance is no fait accompli.


Even without Google and Google.org, the HEM market is one of the most competitive in the smart grid space.  There are dozens of energy monitoring and management solutions available, and more are coming online this year.  There are well financed and well respected companies providing compelling solutions for utilities and consumers.  Google could very well marginalize some providers, but dominance is no fait accompli.  Would be competitors might even find opportunities to offer solutions that run on Google’s traditionally open platforms.

C’est la vie – Consumers should have their options.


I'm as big a fan of Google as the next guy, and I will soon profile a number of quality HEM solutions (Google included) that consumers can begin taking advantage of, even without a smart meter.  Let’s just hope we can keep Google’s AdWords off our in-home energy management displays.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Your Utility added you as a friend on Facebook…

Now that utilities have access to the gear necessary to deploy smart grid technologies in the tens of millions this year, one of the remaining burning questions is how to improve dialogue with customers and develop more meaningful relationships. This topic warrants discussing a couple factors that will help shape the dialogue that can lead to those meaningful relationships:
  • How should we engage customers (by what means)?
  • What should we talk about?

How should we engage customers?

Energy Management Displays, Web Based Applications, Mobile Applications


One of the relevant concerns that has emerged in the rollout of smart meters, is the incongruous deployment of energy management displays and other complementary smart devices. Along with providing highly convenient access to the real-time energy consumption data that can affect positive change, these tools can also be used in various ways to readily engage customers. These devices certainly add another cost component to the ROI equation, but it’s important to test these options while we’re in the early phases. Providing online tools and mobile applications of the same content and customer interaction capabilities should also be a part of these tests.

Social Media

No discussion of customer engagement should go without a thoughtful social media strategy. Social media’s open and decentralized nature often presents operational and cultural challenges for organizations. It is for this reason that utilities need leadership roles in ‘community building’ to develop their social outlets, integrate their strategy into all aspects of customer communication, educate internal and external audiences, experiment, innovate, and ultimately empower customers to talk about energy consumption in ways that are meaningful to the customer and the utility.

Low Tech

Not to be forgotten are all those folks who aren’t fully plugged into our highly connected world. They’re not on email all day, spending hours on Facebook, or using fancy iPhones and Blackberrys. They do however have regular cell phones with SMS capability and a snail-mailboxes. Utilities no doubt will need to pay attention to this important customer segment, leverage the ‘old reliable’ communication platforms, and also participate in community events. Utilities could start off by creating a simple, easy-to-read bill with a usage chart that families can place on their fridge every month.

What should we talk about?

As with the devices, applications, and social media tools themselves, the topic(s) of conversation are also open to experimentation. We should also recognize that customers will have increasingly more control over this discussion. Our goal is to provide simple concepts and messages that empower customers to take action, motivate others, and come up with their own ideas in support of those concepts. I’m a big believer in establishing simple goals and suggestions for meeting those goals.
 
In the case of introducing Demand Response programs or Time-of-Use (TOU) rates, it may serve utilities well to have sufficient, real-time historical consumption data to show customers what their bill “would look like” under a new proposed rate structure. Then providing simple suggestions that shift the usage of major appliances such as dishwashers and clothes washer and dryers to off-peak hours as a means to maintain or lower their current bill. Providing numerous outlets and support for further suggestions from the utility or from customers will help in engaging them further to achieve those goals.
 
A final note on experimentation. To the extent that we’re trying to avoid another Backersfield-style backlash (see Incident in Bakersfield), remember that it was the lack of communication that hurt PG&E and potentially the smart grid evolution at large. If change is coming, then it’s never too early to communicate. Imperfect and frequent communication is better than one perfectly worded brochure or letter that will get lost or tossed in no time. Social media is a great way to communicate early and often to see what resonates.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lessons for Averting Disaster in the 21st Century

Ten years ago, when the clock struck midnight on 1/1/00, nothing happened...

At one time, the world expected everything from airplanes to cardiac monitors to stop functioning.  This doomsday vision was referred to as Y2K - a computer bug that had the potential to disrupt all life upon the arrival of the new century.

Achieving 21st century global consensus and cooperation will require more effort and creativity.

Slate technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, has garnered some recent attention for suggesting that we can learn something from Y2K.  Mr. Manjoo makes a reasonable assertion that we averted a potential crisis in Y2K because we achieved global consensus and cooperation.

Over the past decade, the rest of the world grew up.  The United States is no longer the biggest kid on the block.  We’ve been humbled by financial busts, terrorism, natural disaster, prolonged wars, and the rise of new super-powers such as India and China.  If global consensus and cooperation are required to solve many of today’s biggest national and international crises, then we’ll need better tactics, creativity, and a more prolonged effort.

There are no perfect responses to complex and long-running problems.

Averting today’s potential disasters in financial collapse, H1N1, cyber-security, terrorism, and global warming for example, are also more complex and long-running.  We could go on spending billions or trillions of dollars in any one of these areas, and perhaps never know if we’ve been successful (aka Precautionary Principle).  At the very least, any resources spent or actions taken will be imperfect.  Therefore we can invariably expect claims that unnecessary and incorrect measures were taken to address potentially hyped-up scenarios.

People have the power to produce meaningful progress and solutions.

When it comes to global warming, I am not the most competent judge of science, but I know that I care enough to make changes in my lifestyle that are more sustainable for living on this planet.  And, I care enough to help and encourage others do the same.  What’s more important is that this same eco-conscious and passion are growing in America and around the world. 

Unlike Y2K, where most of us sat back and let governments and technology professionals solve the problem for us, progress on global warming can also be achieved from the bottom up.  In our 2.0 world, we all have powerful new ways to search, network, communicate, learn, and share information.  Individuals can now be recognized as thought leaders and influencers.  Businesses are answering the call with greener alternatives for their customers, and implementing more sustainable ways of operating.  Whether you are interested in saving money, or saving polar bears, the motivational levers are growing for consumers and businesses.  So are the tools and technologies for making an impact.

As for governments of the world, we should continue to see attitudes and policy evolve as the voice of the people grows stronger, and the scientific data continues to support positive change.  They may also find frameworks that harness the power of the 2.0 people of the world.

Embracing failure, debate and imperfection can result in discovery, innovation, and the truth.


I’ll close with some recommended reading.  Check out the New Year’s edition of Wired Magazine with the word “FAIL” on the cover.  Failing doesn’t strike you as something that would contribute much to your New Year’s resolution, but this featured section explores lessons we can learn from “screw ups, disasters, misfires, and flops.”  Moreover, “if we can train our brains to embrace failure, we open ourselves to new discoveries.”

As someone who has built businesses, developed new software, and managed large scale technology deployments, I believe that if perfection does exist, then it is fleeting.  That’s because everything is evolving.

In the context of addressing many of our biggest challenges in global warming, healthcare, and financial markets, what’s often seen as a sub-optimal or overblown response, can be better than a late response or possibly no action at all. Additionally, these actions can open the door to innovation and fine-tuning that might not have been possible without them. 

It’s time to raise our glasses... 


Here’s to worrying less about perfection, embracing failure, and making small changes that improve the quality of our lives and the world we live in.

Happy New Year!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Could You Let Me Off With a Warning?

A while back I wrote of the public backlash against PG&E’s smart meter deployments in Bakersfield, CA (see Incident in Bakersfield). Since that time a lawsuit has been filed against the utility. As a result, PG&E has slowed their pace of smart meter deployments in Bakersfield, however they maintain that the new meters have been working correctly. Moreover, it was the combination of approved price hikes over the past year and a longer, hotter summer that lead to the higher electric bills.

Central to the educational shortcomings of PG&E’s smart meter deployment program are the lack of tools and incentives for customers to stay knowledgeable about their energy usage, particularly once they have real-time energy usage data via the smart meter.

The smart meter is the first and most essential component of a smart grid enabled home. The advantage to PG&E’s rapid deployment strategy (12,000 installations per day) is that they can install these across their entire customer base of 10 million customers by 2011. The disadvantage of this strategy is that customers are missing out on the tools and services that give them greater control of their energy usage (see Moving Beyond an Energy Conservation Mindset…Scenario 1: Smart Meters installed without complementary in-home energy monitoring and management device(s)).

Getting your smart meter installed is not like getting your cable TV installed. The “utility guy” is not there to answer all your questions and make sure everything runs smoothly going forward. At least this will not be the case until you receive an in-home energy management display from the likes of Tendril Networks.

At a recent industry conference, Tendril CEO, Adrian Tuck, commented on the danger of utilities delaying the installation of tools like the in-home display once a smart meter has been installed. Despite the self-serving commentary, Mr. Tuck is right!

Even in the absence of formal in-home displays, most smart grid residents should have online access to their energy usage, either through the utility or other online tools such as Google’s PowerMeter (available for FREE). Yet, without the right education and incentives to check our usage, why should we bother?

Utilities could certainly create the incentive for these tools by jacking up our electricity rates, but this would no doubt create a huge backlash and possibly stunt the entire modernization effort. Another one of Mr. Tuck’s suggestions is to frame the picture for customers differently. For example, conserve energy or face rolling blackouts. Framing the message is essential, however this particular alternative to energy conservation may be an ineffectual threat especially if it does not materialize on a consistent basis.

At the end of the day, this is largely an energy conservation effort with the near term goal of reducing strain on the grid and pushing out the building of new, costlier power generation infrastructure.

Utilities and all stakeholders in the value chain need to adopt and promote multi-faceted and enduring education programs that inform customers about what’s new today and what’s on the horizon. In the short term, this is indeed higher electrical rates and the potential for more costly blackouts if our energy consumption continues on the current trajectory unchecked.

If we want to avoid the Electrical Speeding Ticket analogy where large numbers of customers are facing a costly and unexpected utility bill, then we’ll need the tools, education, and incentives to take greater control of our energy usage. Short of this, a more effective approach to issuing speeding tickets is to pull people over, let them know how “fast” they’ve been driving, familiarize them with the cost of the ticket, and let them off with a warning.

In the meantime, if you’ve had a smart meter installed without a complementary in-home display, don’t hold your breath until one is delivered. Higher rates are on the horizon. It will pay to get smart today about your usage.

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