Smart Grid Research Indicates That Utility Perceptions on “Prosumers” Evolved Rapidly 2010-2012

According to Wikipedia, the term “prosumer” was coined in 1980 by the futurist Alvin Toffler. The utility industry has begun using the term as it considers the evolving role of customers who will both consume energy and produce energy (or grid response services) to support system operations. The term is also used to strike a contrast between traditionally passive customers (i.e., ratepayers) and the more active customers involved in and interacting with the products they use.

A Kilowatt is a Kilowatt, but is a Negawatt a Kilowatt? Regardless, MATS rules, accelerating smart meter penetration, PV installation, micro-grid success, new DR rules, and a confluence of other market developments have all helped evolve utility perceptions on the future importance and potential of “prosumers.” Our research shows that this trend has accelerated significantly in the past two years.

In preparing an upcoming conference address I am delivering entitled “Energy Prosumers: Future Implications for Utility Customer Satisfaction & Distribution Operations,” I’ve been studying the sentiments of utility companies who have participated in our proprietary benchmarking research studies over the past 24 months. Most of these studies are never published, with the confidential results reserved for research sponsors and top-line feedback provided to the utility study participants themselves with limited distribution rights. I noticed in four different studies, conducted across a two-year period of time, some changes related to utility perceptions around demand side management (DSM) and distributed energy resources (DER).

In a 2010 study, only 68% of a sample of top 100 US utilities regarded demand side management programs as critical, very important or important. In a study we recently completed, the answer to a very similar question had jumped to 92%. While the samples were not identical, the overall target of Top 100 utilities and the sample sizes themselves were. The only difference here was about 24 months. What a difference 2 years makes:

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Yesterday, Intelligent Utility editor Phil Carson asked “Is changing ratepayer to consumer premature?” I say no, it’s not premature--it’s long overdue. Our research shows that utility executive’s attitudes towards DSM/DER opportunities are changing for the positive, so perhaps it’s time for utility marketing executives to get their strategies and communications tactics in play to engage the “prosumer” of the future.

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