Energy in 30: Driving the utility industry toward equity


Tune in to Energy in 30 hosted by Joan Collins and David Meisegeier. On our thirteenth episode, "Driving the utility industry toward equity," hear from Jeff Brown, energy efficiency and consumer programs manager at the Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO), and Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, director of behavioral science and customer insights at ICF. Together, they discuss how energy utilities can effectively tackle the issue of customer equity in their energy efficiency programs.

Topics in today’s episode include:

  • How today’s utilities benchmark their progress toward customer equity.
  • Starting points for more effective engagement with utility customers.
  • The role of behavioral economics in framing how we think about energy use.
  • The importance of more customer-centric models of energy efficiency.

Full transcript below:

David: Welcome to Energy in 30. We'll use the next 30 minutes to explore how utilities in the industry are reacting to forces that are shaping new offerings for customers in order to meet decarbonization goals.

Joan: If you're a utility manager, consultant, technology provider, or just curious about energy, we hope to push your thinking about the changes that are happening in the energy industry with me, Joan Collins.

David: And me, David Meisegeier. So, Joan, how are you doing today?

Joan: I’m doing really well, but it sounds like maybe I’m doing better than you are today.

David: I got my best Barry White going. It’s allergy season here, and it’s kicking me pretty good.

Joan: Well, it’s working for you.

David: Yeah, but I’m trying to hang in there. I actually have a question for the audience, and I know that we can’t get answers in real time, but I’m wanting people to think about the connection between New York City, Miami, and Houston.

Joan: You’re getting me back for arguing with you on the bumper music, aren’t you?

David: I am. For those folks that don’t know, Joan is actually an amazing artist, and she had two exhibitions in galleries in New York City and Miami, and now a third in Houston coming up in April. You want to tell us a little bit about that?

Joan: Oh, geez. Yeah. I think you said it all. The Houston show is just going up, and the opening will be on the fifth. It’s at Sawyer Yards, which is a big art area within Houston for the Visual Arts Alliance exhibition. So, thanks David. That’s nice.

David: But we’re not done yet. Go to to see some of Joan’s collections. And really, it’s truly impressive and amazing. So, I’m trying to make you blush, but I'm also in awe at what you do, and I think it's kind of cool that we get to share some of our personal lives this way with others. So thank you for humoring me, Joan.

Joan: Same goes for you, David. You know I'm a big fan. So let's move on to our topic, which is driving towards equity across all programs. And we are so lucky to have our two distinguished guests, Jeff Brown from PSO and ICF's Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez. Let's get them introduced. David, do you want to start with Jeff?

David: Absolutely. I've known Jeff for a long time, and I’m really excited to have him on our show. He is the energy efficiency and consumer programs manager at the Public Service Company of Oklahoma, which is an American electric power company. He administers the portfolios of energy efficiency, demand response, as well as research and development programs. He's a 29-year-old veteran in the field of energy and economics. And something I learned: He serves on the board of AESP, which I knew, but also the Tulsa Children's Museum and the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges, which I think is kind of cool. And Jeff is married, a father of three boys, and a grandparent of one granddaughter, which I'm sure keeps him very busy.

Joan: What a great introduction. And we also welcome Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez. Beyond all of her hiking and travel and all kinds of adventures, she's internationally recognized for her work on the human dimensions of energy efficiency, conservation, and environmental sustainability. She's a director here at ICF of our behavioral science and customer insights practice, and she has more than 20 years of experience working as a consultant, program manager, and researcher. Welcome to you both.

Karen: Thanks so much, Joan and David, it's great to be here with you.

Jeff: Yes, thank you.

Removing critical barriers to customer equity

Joan: So what's new and exciting? Let's start with Jeff.

Jeff: What's new and exciting? We've been on this equity journey for some time now, thinking about better ways to serve customers, and trying to benchmark ourselves and how we’re serving customers' equity, and really looking at how we're engaging customers across our different programs within the portfolio.

Karen: I want to echo what Jeff had to say. There's so much excitement in the industry right now around equity and a lot of attention being paid to it but based on my experience and the work I've been doing, there is a lot of uncertainty about how to tackle this question. I've been really lucky to work with Jeff over the course of the last year and a half, looking at the work that PSO has been doing and what opportunities lie ahead, and we've made a lot of progress together.

Jeff: Yes, we have.

David: And some very cool stuff, from what I've seen. Jeff, I'm curious if you could tell us a little bit about equity, both from a personal perspective as well as from a PSO perspective.

Jeff: Sure, David. So the big why, when I think about it from a professional perspective, is that we're always trying to do the right thing for our customers, the community, and the environment. And our goals around energy efficiency, one of the primary ones here in Oklahoma at least, is to encourage and enable our utility customers to make the most efficient use of our resource, meaning that the capacity and energy we provide reduces the wasteful use of energy.

As part of that, customers within this fixed rate base are paying into this rider, and we want to make sure all customers have the opportunity to participate to help themselves and to save energy, as well as to help us keep prices low for everyone. So we're always looking at ways to break through barriers: financial barriers, language barriers, access and awareness barriers, that kind of thing. So that's my big professional why.

Personally, I approach this from a unique perspective. Since the age of 21, I’ve been a paraplegic, and thus I've been reliant on a wheelchair for my daily mobility activities. This drives my insight and my purpose around accessibility for everyone—finding ways to remove barriers, and looking at things from an equitable position. I bring that into my role here at PSO, and thinking about these programs from that unique lens, I can think about how we're designing programs and thinking about policy that's trying to open doors and make it more equitable for everyone. I think everybody's got their own journey, and mine, I hope, lends itself to more empathetic ways to look at how customers can participate and have equal access to save energy and help the environment.

David: Very cool.

Joan: To come from a place of empathy—I can't think of a more powerful way to impact change. Thank you so much for sharing that.

David: Definitely. Karen, you mentioned something that triggered a question for me, which is that it can be overwhelming for utilities to think about where to begin on this equity journey. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you and Jeff work together on that.

For a long time, utilities have designed their programs to have open access so all customers can participate, but without necessarily bringing attention to a deeper understanding and a critical look at who is actually participating, and whether or not those traditional approaches have been successful at reaching all types of customers.

Karen: Absolutely. And I should just say, too, that I'm a sociologist by training, so one of the core areas of focus within sociology is to understand this question of equity.

So the work Jeff and I have been doing together is focused on bringing attention and intention to this topic of equity, to bring that concerted look at something that largely we, as an industry, have just assumed was happening and to say who is, in actuality, participating.

So we started, a year and a half ago, looking at some of the residential programs that PSO is running to understand how, both at the program and portfolio level, different types of customers were participating. And when I say different types of customers, I mean customers with different types of sociodemographic characteristics, also customers with different levels of energy burden, customers who live in areas maybe with greater social vulnerability levels, and to really start to identify the different pieces of the puzzle and how those things work together. We've been developing a set of equity metrics for all the residential sector programs in PSO's portfolio, and we recently also started looking at how equity comes into play for the small business program as well.

Joan: What I appreciate about this approach is that equity is such a broader concept in the work you're doing. It's not just about low income. I feel there is a differentiation between what we would call low-income, or low-income programs, and equity. And that's exactly what you were just explaining, both of you. Is there any more that you want to say about that?

Karen: Sure. We also look at race and ethnicity and a variety of other indicators that can be used to understand how, particularly, some customers have greater needs. And that could be tied to income, but also to energy burden and to other measures of social vulnerability and to their ability to provide upfront costs that aren't necessary to buy more efficient equipment. There’s also the social capital: maybe language capabilities, whether or not certain customers can even really understand the utility communications about these programs, or if in fact they know other customers who might be participating in these programs that they can say, “Hey, how did that work out for you?” There’s also knowing that some communities may not have access to other people who have experienced those programs or have less access. All of those things can make a difference.

Joan: Taking away those barriers—Jeff, like you noted, it’s exciting to think about accomplishing that.

Achieving greater engagement and participation

David: I was just going to ask Jeff: Maybe you could talk a little bit about some of the outcomes if you did this benchmarking analysis upfront and tried to figure out where customers are and are not participating. Talk to us a little bit about what strategies you put in place to try and get more participation from customers.

Jeff: So a little more history here: We've been successfully meeting all our portfolio goals for a number of years, since 2015 or so. But we recognized that there were outlying areas, because serving in Oklahoma, we serve the Tulsa metropolitan area, and that's about 65% of our customers. But once you get outside of Tulsa, we've got another 35% that weren't participating as well as we thought they should. So we worked with our vendors to put in performance goals to look at that geographic area and try to make sure we're getting service providers, those trade allies, to participate in those outer areas. And as well, Oklahoma has a significant tribal community.

So we wanted to make sure, by reaching into those different areas, we could potentially influence efficiency in the way they're using energy. We put together geographic-based goals, and we've done well with our limited income programs. But what next? What are we still potentially missing? And the work with Karen has helped us benchmark where we are in terms of meeting those stronger-defined equity goals.

David: That's very cool. I picked up on something you said earlier, Jeff, which is that you're looking for ways to help customers reduce wasteful use of energy. That caught my ear, because, at least in my world, I don't typically refer to energy efficiency that way. I've obviously heard it framed that way. But how do you see language, and I don't just mean English versus Spanish versus other languages, but how do you see the role of language fitting into equity? I'm curious, both Jeff and Karen, about your thoughts about that.

Jeff: Interesting question, David. We started using the word waste some time back because that really is a word that appears in the energy efficiency rules in Oklahoma, but it's something people can easily identify with. Yes, everybody wants to be efficient, but when they put it in the context of “Why am I wasting energy by not being efficient?” I think it changes the thought process there. That's something we've introduced in our language quite a bit, especially in recent years.

Karen: I would agree with that. I think, from a behavioral science perspective, the framing of how we think about our use of energy and our efforts to reduce that use matters a lot. There's a lot in the field of behavioral economics, for example, about how using a loss-aversion type of framing can actually resonate more with people and actually motivate actions. So I would completely agree that using a “waste” kind of framing makes it sound like you're spending money on something that has no useful value, in the case of overuse.

David: So I have to change my vernacular there then.

Joan: Well, I love this digging into access. I just think that's so interesting. And I'm wondering from the both of you: What's coming? Because I already feel like the work you're doing is a bit on the leading edge, but I’m just wondering what's beyond that.

Karen: I think we talk a lot about utilities of the future and what that means, whether we're talking about efforts to decarbonize or to move toward electrification or flexible load management. And we know that regardless of which of those—or potentially others—we're talking about, we're moving in a direction where customer engagement is increasingly a critical part of what we might call success. Moving toward that industry of the future necessarily means that we need to engage with customers in more effective ways. And, I would say, in more inclusive ways, such that all customers truly are participating and that we're able to break down those barriers that do exist in association with a lot of the traditional approaches to energy efficiency so we can achieve higher levels of engagement for all customers.

David: It makes perfect sense.

Jeff: That's well said, Karen. I think about going back to what I said earlier, doing the right thing for customers, communities, and the environment in a sustainable way. And I think about the advances in technology and information and the opportunities there with the rapid change in technology. But at the same time, there's also those challenges and barriers that not everyone can adopt as rapidly as technology is changing. We need to make sure we don't leave folks behind and give everybody that opportunity. From a utility perspective, we're uniquely positioned as a regulated utility to deliver these kinds of opportunities to make sure we're looking at different barriers to entry when it comes to equity. As [a] regulated [utility], we're cost-effective—but then there's a social aspect to things, I think.

Joan: I couldn't agree more. We usually get a lot of technological responses on that, and I admire the fact that you're both looking at a different dimension.

David: Yeah. I don't want to get you in trouble, Jeff, but I am curious what role, if any, you see commissions playing in equity from a utility lens. Do you think it's critical to get them on board? Or do you think we can do what's necessary without them?

Jeff: That's definitely a tough question, David. I think it deserves a conversation, and I think everything comes back to being open about the opportunities and the barriers because whether the utility is involved or the commissions are involved, I think things can be done with or without—but you really have to have dialogue to make sure everybody understands the path we're going to take forward. When it comes to these programs, that's the approach we try to take: to make sure we say where we're going, and that we get there, and that we tell them where we've been.

Maintaining a customer-centric focus

Joan: Are there any other questions before we move to our final area of the podcast and the big question?

Karen: Am I allowed to ask a question?

Joan: Yes, absolutely.

Karen: Jeff, what advice might you give to other utilities based on your experience working together on this equity effort with PSO?

Jeff: It goes back to keeping your eyes open and thinking about the possibilities and looking at things through a different lens and trying to gauge where you potentially have barriers. Try to measure yourself to at least know where you stand in terms of your portfolio and ask if you’re missing any potential areas. Where we're at is really kind of going back and benchmarking ourselves to say, “All right, maybe here's where we're at. Is this really where we want to be? Is this where our stakeholders want us to be? Or is there something different or better we can do to allow customers to participate and keep energy affordable and in a more sustainable way?”

David: I love that advice.

Joan: David, did you have any other questions?

David: No, I appreciate you asking, Joan, but I don't.

Joan: How about you, Jeff?

Jeff: Not that I can think of.

Joan: All right. Well, as we wrap up, we always like to ask this one question. So maybe we start with Jeff and then Karen. If you could do one thing to change the industry, no limits, what would you do?

Jeff: That's a big opportunity there, Joan. I was educated in economics, so I like to think the ideal economy is one where all participants have perfect information. There are no barriers to participation and free entry and exit into the market. I think if there were no limits, I'd challenge the areas around customer choice in terms of participation in programs and the ability to purchase products that are most efficient to them and potentially meets their choice of fuel. I know there's some states that have pointed out there are fuel-switching rules, and I think technology has changed, and products have improved. Some of those things need to be addressed. There's an opportunity for customers to save energy, but they want the utility to walk along beside them. In some instances, there are fuel-switching rules that prohibit that. I think stakeholders need to be involved and kind of think through whether their rules are still relevant in those instances.

Joan: That's a great answer.

Karen: That is a really amazing question. I would have to say that we just break out of our old models, in general, of siloing energy efficiency from some of the other things that are going on within the utility industry, like demand response, flexible load management, and now even decarbonization and electrification, and that we have a more customer-centric model and think about the larger constellation of offerings that utilities provide. What do those look like from the customer's perspective, and how could they be better integrated with each other to truly serve the customer, with the customer being a partner?

And then, since I'm a sociologist, I'll also say that in order to do that, we should integrate more behavioral science into all the things utilities do, and the utility industry does, so that we’re not relying on outdated models or mental models in how we think about what motivates people to acknowledge that it's not just about the dollars and cents, but it's also about a lot of other relationships and larger goals, whether climate-related or otherwise—to really see the whole person when we look at customers, and to create programs that are engaging with customers as partners in the process.

David: That's deep.

Karen: You asked me “pie in the sky,” so...

Joan: That's right. And thank you both so much for bringing such a heartfelt perspective. It's been such a wonderful conversation.

David: Yes, definitely. Thank you both. Joan, one of the things I've learned in talking with our colleagues in our workforce innovations and poverty solutions group is to listen to your communities. And Karen, you mentioned customer-centric, and Jeff, you mentioned focusing on your customers. I think that's key in solving some of the equity challenges that we see. And it's been really enjoyable to discuss what you, Jeff, are doing with PSO. And Karen, I know that you're applying this to other utilities around the country as well. So we appreciate you both being on to share those thoughts and insights.

And if you've enjoyed this conversation as much as Joan and I have, we'd appreciate you liking, sharing, and even subscribing to our podcast.

Joan: And furthermore, we thank you for following along with these episodes and all of the interesting conversations we're having. In our next episode, we're moving on to discuss the growth of efficiency and controlled-environment agriculture, and we'll have guests Derek Smith, who's the executive director of the Resource Innovation Institute, and ICF's Cody Allen. Here's to our next Energy in 30.

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Meet the author
  1. David Meisegeier, Vice President, Finance and Smart Homes Programs

    David helps innovate customer-centric energy programs that meet utilities’ current and future needs, with nearly 30 years of experience in the energy industry. View bio