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Empowering Low Income Customers on Time-Based Rates



When the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) implemented Time-of-Use (TOU) energy pilots in 2018, they conducted a baseline surveys to gauge awareness of and interest in the program. Over the next year, the CPUC followed up with the same questions to better understand what customers were aware of and the actions they did (or did not) take to reduce energy consumption during high-rate time periods.


One of the most interesting results of the surveys was that CARE customers indicated substantially more interest in getting usage alerts (21 percent) than non-CARE customers (13 percent).1 The results suggest that awareness is the most critical factor in implementing energy-saving habits and behavior patterns among lower-income Californians.


Insight Into a CARE Customer


Noticeable differences exist between CARE and non-CARE customer behavior. For example, while one in three customers (32 percent) indicated that they shifted electricity usage from higher-rate to lower-use times, the same was true for only one in five CARE customers (21 percent).2 While this might seem to indicate that CARE customers aren’t as concerned with conserving energy, it’s interesting to note the percentages of customers who reduced energy usage instead of shifting it. In this case, 18 percent of the overall customer pool reduced electricity usage while an impressive 25 percent of CARE customers did the same.3


Over the course of the survey, CARE customers consistently demonstrated that they just didn't know about TOU programs, their choice of plans, or any kind of correspondence about steps they could take to reduce their energy usage. For example, when asked if they were aware that the CPUC had switched them to a tiered utility billing model, 59 percent of non-CARE customers knew it had happened, compared to 47 percent of CARE customers.4 Of the entire customer pool, 44 percent stated that they didn’t recall receiving any communication about plan features, changes, or actions they could take to reduce their energy consumption.5 It’s easy to see that energy reduction among CARE customers is less a matter of attitude than it is a lack of awareness.


When customers were aware of their options, they took action. For example, 17 percent of customers recalled receiving correspondence from the CPUC about the benefits of smart thermostats, and 19 percent of customers subsequently installed them. The most popular improvements were visual and systemically reduced energy consumption; the two most common modifications were installing LED light bulbs (68 percent) and energy-efficient or smart appliances (47 percent). This preference for technology was substantially prioritized over more traditional energy enhancements like new windows (17 percent), new water heaters (17 percent), and additional insulation (11 percent).7


Interpreting the Numbers


Dialing in on these statistics points to some critical conclusions. First, the most significant problem is a lack of awareness that TOU energy rates are in effect. However, when made aware of TOU requirements, people took action—and CARE customers were demonstrably more likely to reduce energy consumption than non-CARE customers. Those modifications in electricity use were likely to be highly visible (LED light bulbs) and disproportionately geared toward smart features (e.g., appliances and thermostats).


Embracing a visual, smart reminder about high-use times and billing periods would have a clear, positive effect on all customers, but it would be substantially greater among CARE customers.


Rather than relying on time-delayed correspondence and notifications that nearly half of customers completely ignore, an immediate, personal notice would drive changed behavioral patterns.


Installing Flick in multifamily buildings would be an excellent first step. This smart switch leverages a sound signal and colored display to notify everyone in the building of times when energy is most costly, both in financial terms and the size of the carbon footprint. Alerts are real-time, giving customers the greatest opportunity to react immediately. The benefit here is both immediate and long-term: consistently receiving alerts about high-rate periods will condition customers to reduce energy consumption during those times of the day, forming electricity-conserving habits.


Flick could also substantially decrease the cost and effort of attempting to reach out and notify customers of high-cost periods. This is particularly true in a multilingual environment, where something as simple as a text notification can get complicated quickly, while an automated visual alert from Flick is universally understood. Leveraging this technology for CARE customers saves families money while supporting, stabilizing, and reinforcing California’s power grid as a whole.







Endnotes

1. Default TOU Pilot Survey 2 Report, January 28th, 2019, page 17

2. Ibid, page 14

3. Ibid, page 14

4. Ibid, page 5

5. Ibid, page 16

6. Ibid, page 7

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