Plan your celebration for Energy Efficiency Day 2017

Oct. 5 is fast approaching, and the message for Energy Efficiency Day 2017—save energy, save money—is one your customers will surely appreciate.

Following the success of last year’s first-ever national event, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy You are leaving is looking to expand participation and awareness of the event. More than 175 were official supporters in 2016. Your utility could join the more than 175 government agencies, companies, power providers, cities and other organizations that supported Energy Efficiency Day in 2016.

Outreach includes a website, a Facebook account, You are leaving more official declarations and a challenge to save energy in homes and businesses. An ACEEE blog post  lists four suggestions for challenging your community to save energy.

  • Sign up on the new event website You are leaving as an individual or as an organization. You will receive ideas and fun facts to share on social media as Energy Efficiency Day gets closer.
  • Urge your residential and commercial customers to take the Lightbulb Challenge or the Office Lighting Challenge.  Challengers agree to replace at least one light bulb with an LED. If each US household purchases just one LED bulb, consumers could save $500 million annually.
  • Share your own energy efficiency story. Promote your news about Energy Efficiency Day and the benefits of saving energy–and money–through blog posts, emails, newsletters and social media. Create your own content with videos, photos, graphics or other messages. Sign up on the EE Day website to get more material you can use from ACEEE.

You can use your imagination, too–creativity and humor are welcomed. And don’t forget to share your ideas with ACEEE and WAPA. We would love to highlight your activities in an Energy Services Bulletin story.

Source: American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, 9/5/17

SMUD sponsors solar model car competition

Electric vehicles (EVs) hold a lot of promise for greening the transportation sector, and could do even more if the electricity that powers them comes from the sun. To encourage the next generation of consumers to think about automotive innovation, SMUD You are leaving sponsors an annual Solar Car Race for high school students.

Students competing in the Solar Car Race all start with the same kit and then add custom touches.
Students competing in the Solar Car Race all start with the same kit and then add custom touches. (Photo by SMUD)

More than 300 high school students competed in this year’s event, held at Cosumnes River College You are leaving on April 19, as part of Earth Week. The competition is open to any high school in SMUD’s service territory.

Community comes together
The race took place in the college’s quad, and the construction department designed and built the wooden race track used by the racers. The event also gives students an excellent opportunity to visit a community college campus and experience what it has to offer.

The Sacramento Electric Vehicle Association You are leaving and EV owners were also on hand to exhibit many models of available EVs and to discuss the technology and benefits of driving a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Tools for students, teachers
SMUD provides each school registered with up to six solar car kits, which contain a 12-watt solar module from PITSCO You are leaving and car accessories from Solar MadeYou are leaving Using the same solar panels, motors and gear sets as a jumping-off point, the students choose their own materials and design the car they are going to race. The entries compete for not only the fastest car, but also for best design, most sustainable, best engineering and most creative design. Each participating student receives an event t-shirt, also provided by SMUD.

In addition to the kits, SMUD also offers professional development workshops for teachers interested in using the solar-powered cars in their science or physics curriculums. A variety of workshops and training, exhibits and online resources are available to both teachers and students through SMUD’s Energy Education & Technology Center.

Racing toward future
Participation in the solar car race has doubled since it began 13 years ago, which is not surprising in a territory that has around 8,000 electric vehicles. The Solar Car Race is loosely based on the Department of Energy’s Junior Solar Sprint, a classroom-based national competition of solar-powered model cars for students, grades six through eight.

As a community-owned, not-for-profit utility, SMUD is focused on balancing its commitment to low rates with the goal of supporting regional vitality, and education is central to that effort. Through events like the race, the Solar Regatta and an Energy Fair, SMUD gives back to its community, while helping to develop the professionals who will create the energy solutions of the future.

Source: SMUD, 4/24/17

Proven Practices: Engage Media to Garner Credibility

As challenging as it is to design an energy efficiency or renewable energy program for utility customers, getting the word out and driving adoption often seems like the greater struggle. You know how to come up with an approach that balances your utility’s goals with customer needs, ensure that quality equipment or systems are available in your area and streamline the application and installation processes. Now all you have to do is persuade your customers to get on board. Before you print another bill stuffer or pay for a newspaper or radio ad, visit the Better Buildings Residential Program Solution Center for some tips on building credibility through earned media.

Coverage that comes from good public relations may not generate immediate leads, but it can increase program recognition and lay the groundwork for future leads. A customer who has seen a news story about how a home energy upgrade helped a local family reduce electricity bills may pay more attention to the bill stuffer announcing your program. Timely content, such as a story about weatherizing or upgrading homes in the winter, can generate interest and even phone calls to customer service representatives.

The Residential Solution Center offers the following suggestions to earn media coverage:

  • Mark major milestones to spur momentum – Media outlets are interested in stories about the first or the biggest.
  • Keep content fresh and relevant – Refresh your messages about your program with stories about how it helped individuals, groups or the community.
  • Become a resource for energy efficiency – Your staff has experience and knowledge about issues that concern homeowners and contractors. Reach out to local home improvement shows and newspaper columns, or better yet, start your own.

Learn more 
Visit the Residential Solution Center to find more tips, examples and tools for marketing and outreach. If you haven’t used this online resource before, start the New Year by taking a tour of the Solution Center.

Source: DOE Better Buildings Initiative, 12/12/16

WAPA customers excel in energy competition

The Georgetown University Energy Prize You are leaving is making WAPA feel like parents of talented children who are playing the same sport but are all on different teams. We know there can be only one winner but we are rooting for all of them and, of course, we are as proud as we can be of their accomplishments.

Among the 50 communities competing are WAPA municipal customers Fort Collins and Aspen, ColoradoYou are leaving and Palo Alto, California. The three cities are now in the semifinalist stage of the multi-year competition to reduce their electric and gas consumption in a sustainable and replicable way.logo-large250aspenenergychallenge400

To enter the contest, each community submitted a long-term energy-saving plan with commitments to policies and projects by residential associations, governments, institutions or businesses in the community. In the fourth stage, beginning January 2017, finalists will be selected for their energy-saving performance over the previous two years. The criteria also include innovation, potential for replication, likely future performance and program accessibility for all residents. The judging panel will choose the winner from this group to receive a $5-million prize to use to further their community energy plans.

Motivations beyond money
WAPA customers competing for the prize have a track record of designing successful energy-saving programs and engaging customers. It makes sense that they would put that experience to work to earn a $5-million prize to further their efforts, but there are other reasons for competing, too.

It is all about the data for the city of Aspen, acknowledged Utilities Efficiency Specialist Ryland French during his presentation at the Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange. “The information we collect will be normalized based on weather, population and other factors,” he explained. “It will give us an aggregate look at community energy use that we didn’t have before.”

Fort Collins Utilities has been pursuing aggressive energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation goals for several years now, and the ramped-up time scale of the competition provided an excuse to pilot new innovative programs. “We are coming at it from a research perspective,” said Project Manager Katy Bigner. “It gives us another way to drive greater community involvement in achieving our Climate Action Plan.”

Get community involved
Since both cities already had active programs for reducing energy use, it made marketing sense to rebrand the competition with a local name. “We wanted to leverage community pride,” said French. “Highlighting the competition with other cities helped to create enthusiasm.”

So the GUEP became the Aspen Energy Challenge You are leaving in Aspen and Lose-a-Watt You are leaving in Fort Collins.

To its established foundation of energy coaching, home audits and rebates, Aspen added outreach tailored to specific community segments. Program promotion material for home audits pictured city residents who had actually received the assessments, allowing customers to see that their neighbors were participating. A school district-wide retrofit project of lighting and controls became a teaching tool and turned students into advocates for energy conservation.

Working with the Poudre School District has been central to Fort Collins’s strategy, as well. “We’ve focused on small education programs, because when you get kids excited about something, they run home and tell their parents,” said Bigner.

The city also enlisted a sorority from Colorado State University for a “Porchlight Campaign.” Sorority sisters walked through neighborhoods making note of homes that had incandescent bulbs in their porch fixtures. The students would talk to the homeowners and offer to replace the conventional lights with compact fluorescent lamps.

More than one way to tell story
Outreach is a challenge for all utilities, whether competing for a multi-million dollar prize or just trying to get customers to sign up for a new demand response program. Aspen and Fort Collins pursued some proven strategies, like engaging students, but used the competition to experiment with different approaches too.

For Aspen, success came from taking a simple message and spreading it through as many avenues as possible, appealing to many different motivations. When a promotion offering residents a free Nest thermostat was “leaked,” only two people called. However, when the offer was officially announced in the city’s email newsletter, 30 homeowners called before 9 a.m. to get their Nest.

The free home energy assessment program was another offer that didn’t take off until the second announcement. “The first time we promoted it was before the Aspen Energy Challenge branding,” French recalled. “We put the offer in community partner e-newsletters and from mid-March to May 2015, only 50 people signed up for audits.”

By August 2016, when the city offered the second round of free home energy audits, the Aspen Energy Challenge was well established. The offer appeared in the competition’s dedicated newsletter, as well as, newspaper and radio ads, on the Energy Challenge website, posters, social media, local television, events and more. “We talked generally not just about saving energy and money, but also about being green, joining the community, competing for the Prize, comfort, health and safety and tech trends,” said French.

Customers claimed all 25 free audits in only seven days, so Aspen continued to promote audits at the regular incentive level of $100 after the rebate. “We had enough traction in the community that there were 24 more sign-ups over the last three weeks of August,” he said. “They were attracted by the free offer, but continued to participate after the free audits ran out.”

Fort Collins decided to come up with a marketing campaign that differed from the one it had used prior to the competition. “We are not only testing out innovative programs, we are looking at different ways to market them, too,” Bigner said.

A sociologist the utility consulted had done research that indicated people find open-ended calls to action confusing. “When you say, ‘turn down your thermostat,’ people don’t really know how much they need to make a difference,” she pointed out. “The marketing campaign is focused on taking specific steps to cut down on energy use, and then moving to the next level.”

The contest website provides visitors with an interactive chart that categorizes actions as easy, medium or advanced, and includes steps for renters and home owners, different home systems and appliances. For example, easy steps for lighting include turning lights off when not in use and replacing conventional incandescent bulbs with one of the newer, high-efficiency options. Advanced measures include buying large appliances, installing solar thermal or photovoltaic systems and investing in building shell upgrades. The chart indicates measures for which rebates are available.

Creating competition between businesses has paid off for the utility. Although the contest does not count energy savings by business customers, businesses can compete with each other to see how much energy their employees can save at home. Lose a Watt created the Workwise Challenge to get local businesses within the city limits involved. Employees install a Home Conservation Kit the program supplies, and then tell their stories on the website. Participating businesses earn recognition and employees have the chance to win prizes. The strategy has resulted in an 86,000 kilowatt-hours in savings.

Some things work
As the end of Stage 3 of the competition draws near (Dec. 31), contestants have had time to evaluate some of their strategies and draw a few conclusions.

Working with school districts was a success for both utilities, showing once again that it is never too soon to reach out to tomorrow’s consumers.

Affordable housing energy upgrades proved especially successful in Aspen, a resort community with a large demographic of seasonal workers. “We were able to do 400 units in only a couple of months. The key was focusing on the process and working with the city council and county commission,” French recalled.

The utility matched the upgrades with outreach to tenants and landlords. “Seasonal tenants can’t be expected to know what 0 through 5 on a radiator dial means in terms of actual temperature, or what to do if the solar thermal system on a unit isn’t working,” French said. “To maintain the gains from the upgrades, we had to educate the people who lived in the buildings and managed them.”

In addition to the success of the business competition, streamlining its energy-efficiency upgrade program for homeowners has been a success for Fort Collins. “We walk the customer through the whole process from audit to completion,” said Bigner.

Others, not so much
Having a chance to pilot new ideas and find out more about what makes consumers tick has been a frequently cited motive for participating in the Georgetown University Energy Prize. The participating utilities already have lessons under their belts, some a surprise and others not.

Aspen is a city of large vacation homes and those homeowners are an especially tough audience for a message of energy efficiency. “We have tried promoting the competition through the food and wine festival, peer pressure, talking about savings and reaching out to property managers. No luck,” French admitted.

He added that Park City, Utah, another competitor with a similar demographic profile, was having the same problem.

Given the number of young consumers in the college town, Fort Collins thought the Joule-Bug gaming application might be a good way to engage customers in saving energy. “It turned out to be good for only about a year,” Bigner noted. “It required too much effort to sustain over the two years of competition.”

Enlisting energy leaders to promote the competition through social networking was another strategy that ultimately offered to little savings for the effort it required, she said.

Crowdfunding to help a low-income customer make home efficiency improvements was another idea that didn’t pan out. “We raised only $200 to help a single-mother schoolteacher. But I think that approach might still be successful for a nonprofit or faith- based organization, for example,” Bigner observed.

After the finish line
Whoever wins the Georgetown University Energy Prize, the participants can look forward to gaining solid data about their customers’ energy use, along with a clearer idea of what drives customer engagement.

After being judged for their performance in Stage 3, the selected finalists will submit a report on how their programs supported the community’s plan and how they can be applied to longer-term strategies. “We expect to be able to learn plenty from the other participants,” said Bigner.

While a $5-million prize would be great—especially if a WAPA customer wins it—the lessons that come from the competition may well be the greatest prize, and consumers and utilities alike will be winners.

New Better Buildings toolkit dives into training techniques

Utilities often struggle to educate contractors, staff and volunteers on building science; sales and marketing; program offerings and business development. To help residential energy-efficiency program managers plan technical, outreach and professional training, the Department of Energy Better Buildings Residential Network recently launched a Training Toolkit.

Eden Housing affordable housing developer in Alameda County, California, has partnered with the Better Building Initiative to reduce the energy intensity of its properties by 20 percent. Reduced energy intensity results in lower utility bills for tenants and building owners. (Photo by Eden Housing)
Eden Housing affordable housing developer in Alameda County, California, has partnered with the Better Building Initiative to reduce the energy intensity of its properties by 20 percent. Reduced energy intensity results in lower utility bills for tenants and building owners. (Photo by Eden Housing)

This toolkit—the fourth Residential Network Voluntary Member Initiative—includes tips, resources and examples to help you realize the value of providing training opportunities for contractors, staff and volunteers. A study of more than 140 energy-efficiency programs across the country found that contractor training activities led to more comprehensive upgrades, a higher assessment-to-upgrade conversion rate, improved program processes, improved quality control and increased revenues, among other benefits.

To achieve such results, program staff, volunteers and contractors must have a thorough understanding of building science; sales and marketing; residential energy efficiency program offerings and business development. In the Training Toolkit, program managers will discover training resources and opportunities, compiled and reviewed by Better Buildings Residential Network members, to build that expertise in-house.

The toolkit provides resources on three types of training:

  1. Technical training – Covering building science, energy assessments, technologies and techniques
  2. Outreach training – Covering promotion of program offerings, sales training and customer engagement
  3. Professional training – Covering business development and management for participating contractors

Additional resources at the end of the toolkit include more details on the Better Buildings Residential Program Solution Center. This online collection of resources and lessons learned concerning training and other topics is based on years of on-the-job experience in residential energy-efficiency programs.

Get involved
The Better Buildings Residential Network connects energy-efficiency programs and partners to share best practices and learn from one another to increase the number of energy-efficient homes. Several Western customers, including the cities of Fort Collins, ColoradoYou are leaving and Palo Alto, CaliforniaYou are leaving participate in the initiative.

Members of the Residential Network join with other energy-efficiency programs and partners to identify and address common challenges and market opportunities through voluntary initiatives that result in the development of new tools and resources. Your feedback concerning this toolkit and your training efforts help the network improve its resources and identify new issues.

Contact the Residential Network for more information about joining or participating in the next voluntary initiative.

Source: DOE Better Buildings Initiative, 3/25/16

Around the web: Celebrate Public Power Week with these resources

Public Power Week, You are leaving Western's site. Oct. 4-10, is a great excuse to remind your members that they are the “public” in public power, and to educate them about energy issues. America Public Power Association (APPA) has put together a list of online resources to help cooperatives and municipal utilities in their public outreach efforts, during Public Power Week and beyond. You can link to them from your website and include the resources in your publications and communications. 

  • DOE Energy Saver
    What better way to celebrate Public Power Week than introducing your members to this treasure trove of tools and information on saving energy and money at home. If your utility already shares Energy Saver tips through your website and bill stuffers, consider tying topics from Prices and Trends to a big-picture story about how public power benefits the community.
  • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Student’s Corner
    Very few people outside the power industry now what FERC does or the part the commission plays in keeping our lights on. Even adults could learn a thing or two from the games, quizzes and other multimedia on this website.
  • APPA Pride in Public Power campaign
    This campaign encourages public power utility managers, staff and governing bodies to promote the benefits of public power to the communities they serve. Find programs and tools to help you tell your story.

Source: American Public Power Association

A look ahead: APPA Customer Connections offers economic development training

Utilities support the economic health of their communities by providing reliable power at affordable rates, but they will discover they have much more to offer at the Customer Connections Conference You are leaving Western's site. Oct. 18-21 in Austin, Texas.

The American Public Power Association (APPA) has put together a full track of economic development sessions for not only utility professionals, but local officials and city staff, board members and regional economic development and marketing specialists, too. All are encouraged to attend the event at the APPA member rate.

Improve key account service
A roundtable session will kick off the economic development track on Monday morning, Oct. 19. Key account and economic development professionals will come together to discuss the best practices for working together toward common goals. Participants will learn how to identify roles and actions, as well as how to collaborate on projects to attract and retain businesses.

Customers Speak is an afternoon panel that brings the large customer into the mix. Representatives from Whole Foods, Samsung Austin Semiconductor and other Austin-based key accounts will talk about what they expect from utilities and what drives customer satisfaction and decisions on location and expansion.

Bring business to town
Strategies for making your community stand out as a business-friendly environment are the focus of two more sessions. Retail Recruitment: Tips and Strategies for Building Stronger Communities looks at proven techniques to recruit and retain retailers and foster local entrepreneurship.

Finding creative solutions and new opportunities in environmental regulations is the topic of Using Sustainability as an Economic Development Tool. Hear from utilities that turned energy efficiency and sustainable innovation into drivers for economic growth.

Set sites high
Location may still be king, but it does not have to be your community’s destiny. On Tuesday morning, Oct. 20, participants will learn from experts how to identify and market to the right sectors, and discover what selectors really want in a site. The session Using Analytics and Visualization to Create Economic Development Opportunities will provide tools for evaluating the assets in your service territory and focusing your economic development efforts.

Later that afternoon, Site Selection Panel: Business Trends 2015 delves deeper into the trends and location priorities currently driving economic development activity in a number of industry sectors. A panel of site locators will talk about what they’re looking for when they visit your community, meet with local leaders and go through the incentives and negotiations process.

Do it right
The final two panels look at best practices in economic development. Successful Economic Development from a Statewide Perspective explores the programs and policies that make Texas one of the best states for business. Economic development representatives from Texas talk about business recruitment and expansion, incentives to expand and cultivate industry clusters and creation of a unified and proactive approach to economic development.

The track raps up Wednesday, Oct. 21 with Utility Economic Development Best Practices: Roundtable Discussion. After hearing about a national survey on the topic and reviewing utility case studies on successful economic development projects, strategies and practices, attendees will have the chance to share their experiences. There will also be a discussion on how utilities measure the value of economic development efforts and how to articulate success.

Public power professionals involved in economic development, key accounts, energy services, marketing, public communications and customer service can contact APPA at 202-467-2921 to learn more about this educational and networking event. The International Economic Development Council You are leaving Western's site. recognizes the Customer Connections Conference as a professional development event and offers continuing education credits to attendees.

New marketing assistant learns utility ropes at GCEA

A utility energy-efficiency program can only help customers save money and help control operation costs if customers participate. Getting the word out is a perpetual struggle for many power providers, and one that is even harder for small rural cooperatives. Gunnison County Electric Association You are leaving (GCEA) in Colorado is meeting that challenge with new blood and a fresh perspective—and a crash course in energy-efficiency programming.

GCEA Marketing and Communications Assistant Logann Peterson received a degree in strategic marketing from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)
GCEA Marketing and Communications Assistant Logann Peterson received a degree in strategic marketing from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

Logann Peterson, who graduated last year from Western State Colorado University You are leaving with a degree in strategic communication, recently made the leap from marketing intern to marketing and communications assistant. In her new career as a utility professional, Peterson faces the double challenge of engaging younger customers while learning about her new field. “I didn’t really know anything about the utility business when I accepted the internship,” she admitted. “Working at GCEA has been an eye-opening experience. A cooperative is more like a big family than a corporation.”

Lots to learn
The opportunities available at a utility also surprised Peterson. “Alantha’s job is a whole new concept for me,” she added.

“Alantha” is GCEA Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison, who administers GCEA’s customer energy-efficiency programs. Part of Peterson’s internship included helping to market rebates on LED lighting and Energy Star appliances, and free energy audits for residential and commercial members. GCEA also offers rebates for electric thermal storage heaters and ground-source heat pumps, as well as discounts to members on Convectair room heaters You are leaving

During an energy audit, Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison explains to a GCEA member about air leakage around windows. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)
During an energy audit, Energy Use Specialist Alantha Garrison explains to a GCEA member about air leakage around windows. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

To get up to speed on the topic of energy efficiency, Peterson immersed herself in literature Garrison recommended and did plenty of research on her own. She also accompanied Garrison on an energy audit. “I didn’t know there was so much equipment involved, like blower doors and infrared cameras,” she said. “It was fascinating to see how the tools show what is going on in a building.”

Peterson assists with production of the newsletters, bill inserts, web content and radio ads, while Garrison provides technical expertise and direction for stories on energy-saving measures and related co-op programs. “We don’t expect Logann to learn all the details about our incentives and energy-efficiency programs, but she is very interested in learning about the technologies,” Garrison noted. “She went to the DOE site to research LED lights for an article on lighting.”

GCEA has relied on the traditional formats to promote its programs, and having someone trained in marketing to polish the material has been helpful, Garrison observed. However, “Those avenues are not really building the customer participation we have hoped for,” she said.

Updating strategy
Garrison’s goals for the coming year include improving member feedback and increasing outreach to younger members. That dovetails nicely with Peterson’s first-year goal of establishing a social media presence for GCEA. “Social media is the number-one way businesses communicate with customers today,” Peterson pointed out. “Up to now, the co-op’s online profile has been very low.”

GCEA recently gave its website a makeover and launched a Facebook page and Twitter account, which Peterson will maintain. In addition to announcing outages, Garrison hopes Facebook and Twitter can be used to share energy-efficiency tips, get the word out about energy audits promote co-op events.

Peterson has her work cut out for her, attracting visitors to GCEA’s social media sites and establishing metrics for that outreach effort. “Right now, most of our ‘likes’ are from GCEA employees,” she admitted.

Tale of two demographics
Part of the challenge in marketing GCEA programs is finding ways to reach two distinct groups of members.

Unlike many rural areas, Gunnison attracts young people because of the college, many of whom stay after graduation to enjoy the Western Slope lifestyle. Those residents are more likely to pay attention to social media, but less likely to own their homes. “Most students are renters, and it is tough to motivate them to change their energy use habits,” Peterson observed.

Outside of town is a decidedly older, more settled demographic of ranchers and farmers, which is changing too, but more slowly. “I’d classify them as the ‘over 30’ crowd,” said Peterson. “The internet doesn’t reach into some of the more remote corners of our service area, either, so we still have to communicate with those members in the ‘old-fashioned’ way,” she added.

Low-tech bridge-building
Partnering with organizations in the community is another old-fashioned way to engage members, and one that is proving effective for GCEA. A fellowship student for a master’s program at Western State has set up a few member events and is working with the local housing authority to promote weatherization. “He going door to door to identify members who are income-qualified for the program and telling homeowners what is available to them,” Garrison said. “The personal touch may be low-tech but it works—our goal is to upgrade 12 homes this year and we are on track to meet it.”

Garrison and other GCEA employees have also taught a class on utility business and science at the university. The class not only educates younger and future members about energy use, it serves to position GCEA staff as experts on the topic, another marketing goal.

Forward to the future
Times are changing for utilities—even in rural areas like Gunnison and power providers have to keep up. Fortunately, GCEA is preparing for the future by investing in young employees who are up to the challenge.

Crafting a modern marketing strategy to reach members with the programs that will keep the lights on and the economy strong is going to take a certain amount of trial and error, as Garrison and Peterson readily acknowledge. Energy Services Bulletin wishes Logann Peterson good luck in her new job. We look forward to covering GCEA’s marketing and energy-efficiency successes as they work out the formula.

Customer input guides OPPD in reshaping generation portfolio

When the customers of Omaha Public Power District Redirecting to a non-government site (OPPD) talk, the utility listens. More specifically, before making a big move regarding its future, the utility first sought out the opinion of its customer-owners.

Ratepayers talk to OPPD executives about resource options.
OPPD customer-owners attended public meetings to offer comment on the future makeup of their utility’s resource portfolio. OPPD hosted 10 meetings as part of a public process to get input from their ratepayers before making a final decision. (Photo by Omaha Public Power District)

The OPPD board of directors recently approved a proactive plan that dramatically reshapes the utility’s future generation portfolio by retiring three of the oldest coal-fired generating units at its North Omaha Station. The plan is intended to position the utility for compliance with future government regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while preserving its ability to meet customer demand for electricity.

The decision was preceded by an extensive public outreach process, the first of its kind—but not the last—for OPPD. “Our customers have let us know that they want more of a voice in major decisions, especially those involving our coal plants and pending environmental legislation,” explained Senior Media Specialist Mike Jones. “We will definitely be using the process again to make decisions on issues like renewable energy and rate changes.”

Best-laid plan
Retiring the three units at North Omaha by 2016 will significantly reduce emissions and bring OPPD into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. The two remaining generating units will remain on coal but be retrofitted with additional emission controls, and, by 2023, be converted to natural gas. Under the plan, Nebraska City Station Unit 1 will also be retrofitted in 2016.

The plan also calls for the district to reduce its load by 300 megawatts (MW) through customer participation in demand side management (DSM), a strategy that has strong customer support. “The level of interest in DSM and energy-efficiency programs may have been the biggest surprise of the stakeholder process,” Jones observed. “Our customers said they like the programs OPPD already offers but they want to see us do more, including offering  more incentives and providing more education  on how customers can save energy.”

Customers made it clear during the stakeholder process that they understood changes to comply with new environmental regulations could lead to higher energy costs. The approved measure is projected to cost customers somewhere between zero to two percent over a 20-year period, well within ratepayers’ comfort zone. OPPD President Gary Gates expressed confidence that the plan carries forward the district’s commitment to affordability, reliability and environmental sensitivity. “It also continues to provide a diverse generation portfolio, which customers also said was important to them,” he said.

Building the perfect process
Resource planning is hard enough, and actively engaging consumers in the process adds a layer of difficulty. It took time and extensive planning for OPPD to design a public outreach process that gave customers the voice they wanted in the board’s ultimate decision.

In late 2012, the board tasked the corporate communications and marketing department, led by Division Manager Lisa Olson, with organizing the stakeholder process. “It was an organization-wide effort because the decisions being made were going to have such a wide-reaching effect, on OPPD staff as well as its customers,” said Jones.

Starting with community and advocacy groups that had already approached OPPD about wanting a public process, the outreach team invited the public to a series of 10 open house meetings. Announcements appeared in local newspapers, the OPPD newsletter, on the website and in the district’s social media forums. OPPD sent news releases to local media  and made representatives available for interviews. The outreach team also attended community events where they could talk to customers who might not be aware of the upcoming meetings. “If you can think of an avenue of communication, we used it,” Jones recalled. “The most important piece of advice for utilities launching their own public process is to keep the message in front of your customers. Do whatever it takes to encourage their participation.”

Go time
The meetings began in February and were held at venues throughout OPPD territory. Representatives also attended community meetings and meetings of nonprofit organizations. Turnouts ran the gamut from a dozen or so attendees to as many as 50, as did the level of engagement. Groups like the Sierra Club and Nebraska Wildlife had definite opinions they wanted to share, while many individual customers just wanted to learn more. “There were people who just wanted to let us know that they didn’t want a lot of change,” Jones noted. “It was critical to the process that everyone who participated felt like we were listening.”

OPPD streamed four of its public meetings live on its website so customers who could not make it to the meetings had the opportunity to submit questions to the utility executives. (Photo courtesy of Omaha Public Power District)
OPPD streamed four of its public meetings live on its website so customers who could not make it to the meetings had the opportunity to submit questions to the utility executives. (Photo courtesy of Omaha Public Power District)

Customers who were unable to make it to one of the meetings could share their input on a website, Launched in March, OPPDListens functioned as an online meeting, walking visitors through the issues and options and letting them leave their own comments. About 500 to 600 visitors left comments on the website.

In addition to having an online forum, OPPD customers were randomly selected for a series of focus groups set up by the consulting firm Market Strategies International Redirecting to a non-government site. Participants from the residential and commercial sectors weighed in on the implications of future generation options and portfolios.

Working with engineering consultant Black & Veatch Redirecting to a non-government site, OPPD compiled the results from the meetings, the website and the focus groups into a preliminary report it presented to customers in April. The goal, according to Jones, was to make the process as transparent as possible. “We wanted customers to see what their neighbors were saying and to understand that, whatever the final decision was, they were driving it,” he said.

The outreach team culled the top five options customers preferred and presented a report to the board. It was up to OPPD management to reconcile the board’s concerns with the customer preferences, and release the final recommendations in May.

Positive outcome
At the end of the careful process, OPPD had a plan that gives the utility the flexibility to balance customers’ concern for the environment with their need for reliable, affordable power. The utility also had another tool for getting customer buy-in on major decisions in the future. “All in all, we are pretty happy with the stakeholder process,” Jones acknowledged. “We may do some fine tuning, but it worked as we hoped.”

The key to that success, he added, is sincerity. “When you give people the chance to say what is on their minds, you have to take it seriously,” Jones said. “If they think it is just for show, you will lose their trust.”  

But then, Omaha Public Power District has already established its reputation for being in touch with its customer-owners, and it showed in the input received during the public process. “It turns out that the board and the customers are pretty much on the same page about the direction OPPD needs to go,” observed Jones. “That is gratifying to know. You can be going down a path that you think is what your customers want and find out that you are out of touch with them. That was not the case this time.”

For more information about the implementation and the value of a formal public outreach process, see Nebraska Public Power District Customer Meeting on Energy Alternatives: Summary of Results Redirecting to a non-government site. Western worked with Nebraska Public Power district to produce this report.

Integrated Marketing Communications: What’s the Right Mix?

In the Fayetteville, N.C., Public Works Company (PWC), utility communications are integrated because there are only three people doing it. Carolyn Justice-Hinson and Nicole Stiff are community and communications manager and associate respectively. An administrative assistant helps them.

The department changed from being just a public information office to the office of Communications and Community Relations. Everything Justice-Hinson and Stiff do, they do together.

PWC serves the sixth largest city in North Carolina and the fourth most diverse city in the country, because Fort Bragg Army Base is in its territory. It is an electric, water and wastewater utility with 77,000 electric meters.

Even though the communications staff is small, working closely with other PWC employees and the board extends their reach. Field employees are trained from day one to understand that they represent the utility. Board members have a high profile in the community, so they are part of the team too.

Putting it all together
The utility’s communications strategy consists of four components: traditional customer communications, advertisements, outreach efforts and in-kind sponsorships.

Traditional bill stuffers, newsletters, wall calendars and the website feature community events along with utility news. They try to balance the news the utility wants customers to have with the news customers want. Groups and businesses can, under certain conditions, run announcements in bill stuffers. All materials have the PWC logos and phone numbers so customers can never say they can’t find the contact information.

When designing customer communications, keep it simple and don’t forget to use consistent branding. The value of the calendar cannot be overstated. It stays in a customer’s home all year and they are always looking at it. PWC announces the calendar’s availability in its newsletter. Customers can get it in the mail or pick it up when they walk in to pay their bills.

PWC runs advertisements in print, radio and TV. A few years ago, the focus shifted from seasonal to a year-round presence. Talk, public and gospel radio stations are good for reaching a small but loyal demographic. There are 12 local radio stations, most of which don’t have news directors, so they appreciate getting press releases and are willing to run interviews and public service announcements. This relationship has helped PWC during weather emergencies.

Fayetteville doesn’t have any local TV stations, but cable is affordable and effective. PWC even has its own local-access TV show.
Alternative formats are another way to stretch advertising dollars. Radio taglines and Weather Channel crawls reach a surprising number of customers. When making your advertising buy, negotiate for the extras like remote broadcasts and on-air interviews to leverage your air time. Use local talent to integrate with community.

Don’t assume broadcast is too costly – cable is quite affordable. Design spots that can be used in more than one place and format. Don’t overlook non-traditional publications and programs, or ignore younger audiences. PWC has partnered with the children’s magazine, Kidsville News, since it began publishing.

PWC began sponsoring community events several years ago. It is great for branding the utility. Look for events that tie into the company’s mission and goals, and offer multiple benefits like customer interaction and promoting new programs.

Be creative with charitable support—again, the charities should reflect the company’s goals. PWC employees choose the charities the utility supports. Have an annual giving plan, but also have contingency funds, so you can take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

Develop method for evaluation. PWC has an evaluation sheet for sponsorships that tie events to strategic goals. Metrics look at what the event does for the community and economic impact. There is a section to evaluate organization’s cooperation and follow through. With over 50 sponsorships annually, organizations must supply specific information regarding their legitimacy, use of funds, etc. The evaluation form is somewhat subjective but still very helpful.

Don’t just write a check—use the event to get in front of your customers. Look for events that coincide with program rollouts or seasonal promotions. Don’t overlook potential partnership opportunities with organizations that have common goals.

In-kind contributions should be some kind of conservation items or tools for customers, like compact fluorescent lights or weather stripping. Brand the giveaway with logos and contact information. Don’t invest in items that are not related to your service, so naysayers can’t ask why the utility is spending money on the items.

Engaging the public
Outreach activities at PWC include education, community events and a community advisory group.

For educational events with children, PWC brings along its mascots, Water Drop and Wally Watt Watcher. For adults, there are facility tours, a speakers’ bureau and partnerships with the military base. Last year, PWC did 65 such events, including classroom presentations, community events, career fairs and training workshops with for soldiers who will be working on rebuilding projects overseas.

Outreach helps to the utility to rebrand itself as a good-faith member of community. Customers meet the utility on their own turf to get explanations about service issues. Outreach also showcases employees, enhances recruitment and just plain feels good.

The downside is that sometime you have to say no because you don’t have enough staff volunteers to cover the event, or there are liability concerns. Not all events are as advertised, either, so do homework before getting involved.

The community advisory group is a customer focus group that meets regularly to discuss PWC topics, issues and communications. The 15 to 20 members serve up to three years.

There were trepidations when PWC started the group, but it has now evolved into valuable resource for customer feedback. The group members often become ambassadors for the utility. Occasionally, there are confrontational members and topics to deal with. It helps to have a moderator, as long as the moderator understands that the position is supposed to provide balance. Members need to understand that input does not guarantee change.

The third aspect of PWC’s outreach program is presenting or working on community events. It can be daunting but offers great mileage, such as turning around negative feedback.

Most events have direct relationship to PWC’s core business. Partnering with existing events leverages effort and audiences. Use employee volunteers and praise them. Don’t be shy about promoting the company—even if it means putting on the mascot outfit.

When starting an outreach program, be open to all kinds of events but don’t be afraid to go back and reevaluate. Don’t forget you are promoting your core business. Making notes on the event helps to improve the program and is a reminder the next time the event comes up whether it is worth your time.

Surveys are not the only way to evaluate outreach. Pay attention to customer feedback and whether organizations are inviting the company back. This may sound “old school,” but social media doesn’t have to be electronic. Customers thrive on face-to-face interaction.