How utilities can forge stronger connections with their small business customers

How utilities can forge stronger connections with their small business customers
Aug 4, 2020
Joy Zins introduces an energy efficiency program that covers a lot more than energy efficiency.

How do you successfully adapt an energy efficiency program to a utility’s unique service territory and regulatory environment—while delivering benefits to the utility and its customers alike? How can utilities demonstrate empathy toward their customers and forge stronger ties to the communities they serve? A new model that we developed for two utilities has met with great success. And it has proven easily adaptable to other markets, even in extraordinary circumstances—like a pandemic.

Joy Zins, who designs many commercial and industrial (C&I) programs for ICF’s energy efficiency clients, previews the model in the brief Q&A below. Read the full white paper for more.

Q: What inspired you to write this paper?

A: We developed a new small business program delivery model that was different than ICF’s traditional model of small business programs—specifically, at first, for Entergy Mississippi—to determine how to leverage the locally-based network of small business contractors to support small business customers through an energy efficiency program. The model we developed resulted in extremely high participation rates and tremendous interest among local contractors. We then brought the model to South Carolina in an effort to reach more rural small business customers. It went tremendously well there too, so I knew we were on to something.

Q: From your perspective, what was the most rewarding aspect of these projects?

A: We had no idea it was going to take off the way it did. We thought we’d have to knock on doors, trying to get small businesses to participate. But these Mississippi small business contractors have such strong ties to their communities. We couldn’t even keep up with the volume of work! There was one contractor who was about to retire because business was so slow. Then he enrolled in the program as a trade ally—and got enough work to stay in business, and keep his staff employed. This is in a remote part of the state that a lot of contractors don’t even touch, so it was very rewarding to see this part of Mississippi getting serviced by the program and making an impact on lowering that community’s energy use.

Q: How does this fit into the broader industry context, especially given the pandemic and its impacts?

A: In general, small business programs exist to help companies that are typically underserved and overlooked. But many people don’t think of the needs that small business contractors have. That’s where these small business energy efficiency programs come in—they can help small business contractors grow their business and develop their workforce. We wanted to leverage this program to support the small business customers and the entire workforce serving them. But when COVID-19 hit, a lot of programs had to shut down because they rely heavily on face-to-face onsite audits. We were concerned about that, so we started doing remote audits and virtual walkthroughs for, say, a lighting assessment. It helped businesses who needed to change out their old lighting or old equipment. While their business was empty, they had time to move forward with these projects. Now that the programs are starting to reopen, we’re more flexible with some of the terms. We’ve opened them up to small- and medium-sized businesses, and we raised incentives in some cases. That has helped with some of the recovery for small businesses.

Q: What else has this experience taught you?

A: Utilities should use these programs to really connect with their customers. Not just meet a cost-effectiveness test, regulatory requirement, or energy savings goal, but leverage these programs to integrate with their community. I think we’ve been able to achieve that.

Q: So, what’s next?

A: There’s a lot more focus on healthy buildings currently, even aside from airborne pathogens. So, we’re working on a general awareness and education campaign to improve air quality while also reducing energy use. We’re looking for ways to help our clients get clean air—more outdoor air—and be able to do it efficiency, and also receive energy efficiency incentives to cover a portion of the upfront costs.

To learn more about ICF’s innovative—and successful—approach to small business energy efficiency program design, download the paper.

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