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Scaling National Grid’s Demand Flexibility Resources with Behavioral Outreach

Sept. 8, 2021
National Grid is counting on energy efficiency and demand flexibility to meet decarbonization goals.

Last year, National Grid brought two customer energy management programs together: their behavioral efficiency program serving over 2.8 million customers, and their portfolio of dispatchable distributed energy resources (DERs) including residential bring-your-own thermostat (BYOT) and storage devices. In a first-of-its-kind test, National Grid learned a new way to boost customer interest in demand response and increase their pace of demand response (DR) program enrollment.

National Grid is pursuing some of the most ambitious decarbonization goals in the utility industry. Among other pathways, their organization is counting on energy efficiency and demand flexibility to meet those goals. Badar Khan, the president of National Grid US said on a recent episode of The Energy Gang podcast, “Expanding our capabilities in helping customers lower their consumption has been and will continue to be a key part of achieving net zero emissions.”

Many utilities offer their customers feedback on their energy use. However, few use that information and known presence of behind-the-meter devices — like central air and solar — to deliver personalized outreach to the customers who can benefit most by enrolling in demand response. Last year, National Grid set out to learn whether doing that within their behavioral program could lead more customers to enroll in DR.

I asked Lisa Tallet and Chris Porter, National Grid’s directors of customer energy management in New York and Massachusetts, to share some details on the experiment National Grid ran last year.

Q. Lisa, why did you run this test? What were the challenges or opportunities you wanted to address?

Lisa: We have a real imperative to grow our demand flexibility resources. For example, it’s a priority throughout the state of New York to reduce peak demand on the system. At the same time, we’re working hard to support transportation and heating electrification, which of course puts upward pressure on demand. Making new and existing demand more flexible — shifting it to the times energy supply is clean and abundant — that’s critically important to the resiliency and affordability of the system. All that serves National Grid’s decarbonization goals, which are important to our investors, our customers, and to me personally. 

That’s a long way of saying we needed a new way to get a lot more customers participating in our demand response programs. We saw an opportunity to use our behavioral program to do that. Our behavioral program delivers a lot of measurable customer action, primarily in energy savings, and the experience gets our customers digitally engaged. That’s right where we need our customers to be in order to enroll in our DR programs.

Q. Chris, could you talk about the customer experience the National Grid team created?

Chris: It starts with Home Energy Reports (HERs) delivered by direct mail and email. Across states, we added device-specific energy insights to our HERs and promotional content linking customers to DR programs based on the equipment and energy use profiles in their homes. 

For example, last summer in Massachusetts, we showed customers how much they were spending on cooling and offered them an incentive to enroll in our thermostat DR program. In Upstate New York, we showed customers in personal terms how much money they could save with a pre-enrolled smart thermostat and linked them straight to our marketplace. Our rooftop solar customers received recommendations for getting the most out of their systems and a nudge to our battery storage DR program. And in the winter, we showed our gas heat customers in Downstate New York what they’re spending on heating and an offer to enroll in a gas DR program.

We sent millions of these reports to National Grid customers in the summer, fall, and early winter of 2020. These were big, personalized, digital marketing campaigns. Because we ran them within the behavioral program communications, we knew we would get solid engagement statistics at a point of cost-effectiveness that’s just not possible with typical digital marketing.

Q: Lisa, let’s talk about the results a little bit. What are some highlights of what your team learned?

Lisa: Well, it’s always fun when you hope something is possible, and you’re able to prove it is. We looked at thermostat DR program enrollments between two groups of customers: people who received the experience Chris described, and a control group of customers who didn’t. The customers who received those emails enrolled at over twice the rate of customers who didn’t. That’s a huge result. We saw a 2.3-times higher enrollment rate in Massachusetts, and a 2.6-times higher enrollment rate in Upstate NY.

We also saw some great overall digital engagement results: email opens, clicks, and web visits. For example, across states, we saw a 5.3-times spike in monthly web visitors during the summer months we ran this test. We also saw our solar customers clicked through the emails to view our battery storage program at an 8.6% click rate — about 4-times the industry average. That confirmed our theory that customers who have already gone solar are likely to be interested in adding storage.

Q: Chris, what are some of the ways your team is putting those learnings to use?

Chris: Well for one, we’re doing it again this year, and we’re optimistic we can generate even bigger results. For example, we learned last year that we need to keep it simple. When we gave customers two different calls to action, they were 2-times more likely to just click the first one they saw. So, this year we’re making the DR program content much more prominent.

We’re also streamlining the experience. Last year we linked customers to an informational page, and they had to click again to get to the enrollment page. Thirty-three percent of customers did, which is a great web click rate, but it also means we lost two-thirds of interested customers in that step. This year we’re linking people straight to the enrollment site, just to make it easy on the customer.

Finally, we’re relying on Opower’s new HER design to influence more action. Last year we saw that if you can get a customer to click on one of these emails, they are over twenty times more likely to enroll in a thermostat DR program than anyone else. We’re eager to see just how many more clicks the new HER design delivers. 

Q. Chris and Lisa, if you had to point to one thing that made this work, what would that be?

Chris: I have to point to the obvious one — the channel we used. We’ve known for years now that our behavioral program really engages customers and influences a wide variety of actions: energy savings, web visits, and all sorts of program adoption like installed EE measures and eBills. We used the customer engagement solution we’ve got and put it to a valuable new use.

Lisa: This experiment would not have worked without some great cross-team collaboration. It took our efficiency, demand response, and marketing professionals in multiple states working well together with Opower and EnergyHub (the platform that manages control of DERs for National Grid) — entirely remotely. It took that combined team’s creativity to make an engaging experience for our customers and some complex analysis to make sense of all the results data. I am so encouraged about the progress we can make toward our goals and the quality experience we can create for our customers when our teams work so well together.

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