Last year was a year unlike any other, affecting the utility industry in a myriad of ways. As we head into the new year, there are still many unknowns of what lies ahead: When will the recent spike of COVID-19 infections peak? What will be the impact of the vaccine roll out? Where are new lockdowns taking place? How will the pandemic affect company programs and the ability to reach your goals? We’re all adjusting and accepting that 2021 will likely be another tough year.
While “planning for uncertainty” may sound like an oxymoron, it’s actually a smart strategy. Even if you’re uncertain of what lies ahead, smart planning can help you more nimbly navigate the twists and turns that chaos may bring.
As marketing account director for ICF's energy practice, Laura Orfanedes has nearly 20 years of experience designing and managing integrated marketing and communications initiatives within the energy sector. We sat down with her to discuss how utilities can plan for uncertainty after the end of a most uncertain year. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: What’s the main area of uncertainty that utilities are facing and how can they plan to manage it?
A: Since the start of the pandemic, utilities have had to deal with the swirl of shutdowns and re-openings in the localities where their operations and employees are based. While office staff may still be working remotely, other utility employees have resumed at least some operations in the field.
One of the first things that utilities did back in the spring of 2020 was to put in place safety guidelines and personal protective equipment (PPE) for anyone who has face-to-face engagement with customers. As cases spike in certain places, new lockdown rules may go into effect. Beyond the guidelines already in place, utilities should plan for how to monitor the local situation on the ground to determine where and how they may need to ramp up/down their efforts.
Q: Many utility customers are confronting uncertainty, too. What’s the main issue utilities are hearing from their customers?
A: Bill payments. As so many people are unemployed or underemployed due to the pandemic, residential customers are struggling to pay their utility bills. Likewise, business customers in many sectors are dealing with reductions of their workforce and shutdowns. Some residential and business customers have been impacted by the double whammy of pandemic and hurricanes, floods, and fires.
Utilities need to adapt to the financial uncertainty this can cause but should also plan for how they can adapt. For example, are the energy advisors empowered to offer new energy efficiency discounts to customers to help offset higher bills this winter? How are they managing and training their customer care teams during this crisis? This is the perfect storm for customer dissatisfaction, so utilities should be proactive in making sure all possible resources are available to help their customers.
Q: You mentioned the “double whammy” of the pandemic and catastrophic weather events. What does this have to do with utilities and resiliency?
A: Quite a bit, actually. Over the last few months, a record 12 named storms (6 of them hurricanes) made landfall in the U.S. There were also wildfires in California and rolling blackouts. A power outage is tough on a normal day. But in the context of 2020, a power outage could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Today’s outage is more than an inconvenience, especially as so many adults and children are attempting to work and do school lessons from home.
When frequent or severe events make power unreliable, customers need more certainty. Why do they need certainty? Because when everything seems out of a customer’s control and something goes wrong, they want someone to blame. If you don’t provide that certainty, they are going to blame you—despite the fact that you might be working hard to prevent or remedy the situation.
To build that certainty, I recommend that utilities consider this sequence of communications:
- Implement pre-storm customer communications about storm expectations and how your customers can prepare.
- Stay transparent in communications and provide frequent, real-time updates.
- Thank customers for their patience, explain repairs that have been done, reassert your ongoing investments in resiliency, and acknowledge results won't always be perfect.
- Educate consumers on ongoing grid resiliency and modernization investments happening during non-storm times.
Q: Speaking of modernization, why is the push for clean energy and decarbonization also creating uncertainty?
A: Our industry was significantly impacted by job furloughs, which led to the pausing or retooling of core energy efficiency programs. The clean energy industry initially expected to add over 175,000 jobs last year, but, the industry is instead down nearly 500,000 jobs. And, despite adding nearly 13,000 clean energy jobs last fall, almost 14% of the industry’s pre-pandemic workforce remains unemployed.
Our industry’s ability to scale the workforce to support a thriving 21st-century clean energy economy will be built upon the experience gained from decades of delivering increasingly sophisticated utility efficiency programs. Like those programs, the energy professionals that serve them will also need to become more sophisticated in their skills and knowledge in order to continue moving the industry forward. Utilities will need to determine the right mix—not just increasing energy efficiency, but also reducing greenhouse gases—to both reinvent their portfolio and meet these complementary goals.
Q: Are there any upsides to this era of uncertainty?
A: Yes. How and where people are working changed the “new normal” so quickly. Between the office workers who are still remote and the employees who have returned to regular field operations, there’s been an opportunity for utilities to jumpstart innovation. The industry has been talking for years about doing more virtual offerings. The pandemic has forced utilities to innovate in real-time and put in place new strategies to keep businesses humming and customers well-served. Good brands are resilient and will come through this challenging time stronger than ever.