California’s Flex Alert system managed by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), is designed to forecast periods of high grid use, then notify consumers to adjust their energy use downward as much as possible. This relieves overall grid stress while boosting grid reliability. Although the system is an excellent idea, it’s not nearly as effective as it could be.
Problems with Flex Alert?
The first and most obvious issue is that not everyone gets alerts. A 2013 statewide study found that minority and low-income communities often don’t get the notifications at all.1 This is particularly challenging when working with communities where English is not the first language. One report found that of Vietnamese speakers, Korean speakers, and Chinese language speakers, between 39 percent and 45 percent even knew what a Flex Alert was.2
When people do receive an Alert, making an impact is a struggle. The sheer number of issues Californians are currently facing illustrates the level of distraction Flex Alerts must wade through. Compared to COVID-19, raging wildfires, racial tensions, and a looming presidential election, remembering to shut off unused lights isn't a message that sticks around. A complicating issue here is that Flex Alerts are often not customized to local conditions. For example, the state found that one year, despite concerns around Southern California’s grid taking precedence and driving 90 percent of the paid media budget, the only Flex Alerts issued for the entire year called for action in Northern California.3 Another concern noted by the state is that only half of people who received a Flex Alert understood what they needed to do. 4
Finally, even when people do receive the message, and it does make an impact, it’s difficult to remember. ISO best practices state that Flex Alerts should be issued 24 hours ahead of their target.5 This can be helpful: for example, if you receive the notification the day before, you can change your thermostat and shut off all the lights in your house before leaving for work the next day. However, with COVID-19, a vast swathe of the population is staying home; in situations like this, many people forget to do anything by the next day. One additional issue California discovered was that Flex Alerts targeted for Mondays were more challenging to disseminate since the decision would have to be made on a Sunday when nearly all of the staff was off for the weekend.6
Improving Flex Alerts & Customer Response
Emphasizing these factors could make a tremendous positive difference with Flex Alerts:
· Everyone receives and understands the alert, regardless of language or access to technology.
· Notifications are customized to the grid and location conditions of the user.
· Notifications are unique and make an immediate, noticeable impact that drives action.
Improvements to the Flex Alert system would ideally involve a mechanism that is physically within a consumer’s home, substantially simplifying the notification process. People are far more likely to react to something customized to themselves than they are to respond to a mass notification system.
A unique stimulus is another mechanism that would generate a much higher response rate. Passive notifications (e.g., expecting a busy commuter to read digital highway signs) aren’t always successful, and even active notifications (such as a social media alert or email) have to compete with a thousand other notices that sound exactly alike. A visual and/or auditory ping that is unique amplifies response and reaction rates.
Finally, timeliness is a critical component. Although a day’s notice provides plenty of reaction time, during a period when millions of people are staying home for an unpredictable period, this could be too much notification.
Providing consumers with an immediately actionable notice that tells them to change something now improves the chance that they’ll take action.
Flick Amplifies Flex Alerts
Flick uses a colored display and sound signal to notify everyone in the home or building during times that energy is most expensive or most carbon-intensive. The switch uses time-based electric rate signals directly from local utilities, customizing notifications to local conditions. These notifications occur when the need happens, not hours or days before. An alert triggers an immediate response from people in the area.
The purpose of Flex Alerts is to drive individuals to action so the entire grid can benefit. The problems the system faces revolve around failing to notify the people who need to hear it in ways that facilitate action at the right place and right time. Installing even a single Flick light switch in every home could substantially boost response rates and reduce the chances of future blackouts.
1. Process Evaluation of the 2013 Statewide Flex Alert Program, Research Into Action Final Report, May 2nd, 2014, http://www.calmac.org/publications/SCE_Flex_Alert_Final_Report_050214.pdf
2. Process Evaluation of the 2013 Statewide Flex Alert Program, Research Into Action Final Report, May 2nd, 2014, http://www.calmac.org/publications/SCE_Flex_Alert_Final_Report_050214.pdf
3. Flex Alert Campaign Evaluation Report, Demand Response Measurement and Evaluation Committee, December 10th, 2008, http://www.calmac.org/publications/2008_Flex_Alert_Final_Report_12-18-08.pdf
4. Aliso Canyon Marketing, Education and Outreach Effectiveness Study, California Public Utilities Commission, June 2017, http://www.calmac.org/publications/Aliso_Canyon_ME%26O_Campaign_Evaluation_Report_FINAL_2017-06-28.pdf
5. California ISO Fact Sheet, May 2017, https://www.caiso.com/Documents/FlexAlertFAQs.pdf
6. Process Evaluation of the 2013 Statewide Flex Alert Program, Research Into Action Final Report, May 2nd, 2014, http://www.calmac.org/publications/SCE_Flex_Alert_Final_Report_050214.pdf