Photo by Emerson.
A Sensi smart thermostat being installed.
A Sensi smart thermostat being installed.
A Sensi smart thermostat being installed.
A Sensi smart thermostat being installed.
A Sensi smart thermostat being installed.

Streamlining Customer Service with Public Utility DR Programs

Dec. 19, 2022
Omaha Public Power District sees success with customer-centered smart thermostat deployment.
Americans have become increasingly aware of the need for energy efficiency at home, at work and in between—especially during peak periods. With that awareness has come a growing willingness for energy customers to hear about and consider programs that help to manage demand. But that willingness hasn’t always translated directly into action. Customers are people, after all, and getting people to check the “opt-in” box for a DR program often requires a little bit of nudging from a customer’s electricity provider.

As a result, the demand programs of many utilities around the nation have continued to evolve over the years. A look at OPPD’s recent efforts demonstrates how a utility’s demand response program can connect with customers in a meaningful and inviting way.

OPPD’s residential demand response program started with the A/C load control switch before being expanded in 2017 into a broader offering with the introduction of their Smart Thermostat Program. The program balanced consumer incentives with the lasting value and energy savings that come from a smart thermostat.

Designed to reward customers for saving energy when demand for electricity is high, the program encourages participants to register a qualifying thermostat to receive a one-time $75 credit on their OPPD bill. Plus, they can receive an additional $20 credit annually for participating.

Upon launch of the Smart Thermostat Program, OPPD started integrations with a single smart thermostat manufacturer. Then two years into the program, OPPD decided to increase their DR capacity and customer adoption.

The customer benefits were tangible—and they extended beyond the lower numbers on resident’s energy bills. Because beyond the incentives was the knowledge that participating in the program also helps manage energy costs while reducing strain on the electrical system during times of peak usage. And that’s good for everybody in the community.

But of course, when customers think about electricity, saving money on their bills is usually high on their minds. So OPPD’s intent was to welcome new participants by making saving money while also conserving energy as simple and effortless as possible. In 2020, OPPD began the implementation of a new Distributed Energy Resource Management System (DERMS) provider, which allowed them to expand their program to additional smart thermostat manufactures. And as OPPD’s DR programming expanded in scope, so did their ambitions to make it even easier and more attractive for customers to take advantage of the program’s real-world benefits.

So in 2021, OPPD introduced the newly expanded program to their customers, offering program participation to three more smart thermostat manufacturers. With this program expansion, OPPD set off with an ambitious goal of growing the program by more than 3,900 devices, for an additional 6.3 MW in DR capacity in the first year. This was a 73% increase to their current program participation rate.

Many companies in other industries would find an increase of this scope to seem nearly insurmountable. But OPPD harnessed the existing strengths of their customer relationships and built upon their history of trust and reliability to begin conversations with their customers, to explain the benefits of opting in and the ease of participating.

These conversations demanded a vigorous outreach. So in early 2021, OPPD launched a robust communications program. It was a multi-channel marketing campaign built to both increase awareness of the program and to attract new interested participants—all timed to take advantage of the DR season.

Key marketing tactics included email, social media, digital display, print ads and various owned in-house channels that included the website, bill inserts and customer newsletters. The campaign was successful in capturing 85% of their annual program growth goal. But the story doesn’t end there. With ongoing growth came a better understanding of what could be holding some customers back from opting in. So as the 2021 campaign neared an end, OPPD decided to take a new and rather untested approach.

Moving into the final quarter of 2021, OPPD was ready to start meeting their growth goals, which meant focusing on the fence-sitters and breaking down the barriers that keep them from entering the program. The barriers OPPD’s residents were facing were similar those commonly found elsewhere around the country. Utility energy programs nationwide shared many of the same struggles with customer adoption, including:

  • Confusion about how their programs work and what will be required of the resident
  • Customers understanding what products are eligible for utility rebates
  •  Difficulty submitting rebate forms and long wait times to receive the money

Here OPPD found itself in the right place at the right time to make an impact for its customers. They could do more than just bring the answers customers need and want. OPPD could help reduce the frictions that those customers might commonly encounter along the way. The decision was made to partner with industry experts.

OPPD began conversations with OEMs and quickly selected a single DR enabled product, the award-winning Sensi smart thermostat by Emerson. OPPD looked to Emerson’s utility team to help create a digital e-commerce offering that would make it easy for customers to say ‘yes’ to the DR savings in their home. Instead of continuing to push education and messaging to encourage customers to purchase a smart thermostat and then enroll the program, OPPD and Emerson shifted the focus. 

Through this new strategic partnership, Emerson also pulled in TechniArt, who specializes in providing utilities with cutting edge e-commerce stores and digital marketing approaches. The team created a one-click purchasing experience that simplified the process for their customers, increased overall sign-ups and ultimately built grass roots enthusiasm for the program.

A one-page e-commerce site was built with concise language about how and why an OPPD customer could opt into the DR program. OPPD and Emerson collaborated to offer a limited-time promotion which provided a $129 Sensi thermostat to customers at no charge. The only requirement was that they were in OPPD’s territory and that they agreed to enroll the thermostat in the utility’s demand response program.

OPPD then turned an existing rebate program into a compelling promotional incentive. OPPD leveraged their existing rebate dollars and instead of providing the rebate after purchase, they turned it into an instant rebate. This instant rebate covered the initial cost of the device for the customer, and the Sensi smart thermostat was shipped right to their door for free.

The marketing approach was simple. OPPD published the offer on the utility’s homepage and sent an email to a targeted segment of their customers. The customers selected had shown previous interest in the program, but didn’t make the leap towards purchase and enrollment in the Smart Thermostat Program.

The customer-centric offer proved simple yet persuasive. OPPD achieved a 40% conversion rate on the website during the campaign period. Within just seven days, they reached their goal of 800 customers opting in to receive a free Sensi smart thermostat.

As OPPD looks forward, the e-commerce experience and cost-effective marketing will be scalable for them to grow future customer facing utility programs. When looking for ways to continue to improve the program, they are setting their focus on both installation rates and program enrollment (often a challenge with offering the full incentive up front for customers). Some of these potential solutions include:

Professional Installation

There are several ways to offer professional installations while keeping costs down. The first option leverages trade allies or contractors already working at customers’ homes in other capacities. These trade allies would be able to offer a free Sensi smart thermostat and install it without the need for additional crew. Alternatively, contractors in OPPD’s 13-county service territory could be pulled in to speak about the program and offer professional installation to utility customers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a third option has become popular -- “virtual audits.” These involve a utility employee or third-party companies, like CLEAResult or ICF, staffing a team to assist the homeowner with installation via Zoom or smart phone.

Demand Response Pre-Enrollment

One big challenge is that customers do not always complete the steps to finalize DR program enrollment. The next time this marketplace promo is run, OPPD is working to incorporate pre-enrolled Sensi smart thermostats so that once installation is complete and the thermostat is registered to a Sensi account, no further action will be needed by the participant to complete enrollment. The pre-enrollment feature will reduce an additional step required by the customer and improve conversions for future campaigns.

OPPD used this tailored approach to collect and analyze post-program data, as well as draw their own conclusion about offering these types of promotion to their customers. Of the 800 devices distributed during the promotion, 62% of devices installed and enrolled in the program and the ROI of these efforts were 10% less than traditional marketing efforts for the program. The promotion not only helped OPPD achieve and exceed their year-end program goals, but it also grew Emerson’s enrollment in their program by 300%. OPPD’s willingness and intention to innovate has created a new digital experience that will benefit both customers and the utility for years to come.

Laura Strode ([email protected]) is an account executive at Omaha Public Power District. She manages the marketing strategy and execution for the residential programs offered by the utility. She holds a Bachelor of Science Business Administration (BSBA) in Marketing from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which was the conduit that lead her to OPPD. In her junior year in college, she began her career with the district as an American Public Power Association (APPA) DEED Marketing Intern. She has since, been with OPPD for over 9 years and has held various roles. Outside of work, her and her family live on an acreage with several farm animals and in their free time, when not at sporting events, they love to go air boating.

Steve Stanze ([email protected]) is category marketing lead for thermostats at Emerson. He holds a Bachelor of Science Business Administration (BSBA) in Marketing from the Missouri State University. His passion for the utility industry has provided him opportunities to work with utilities across the country. From smart meters to smart grids and renewable energy to energy efficiency, his understanding of the industry and their customers has broken down barriers and delivered results for his clients. When Steve is not focused on energy, he is busy chasing his three boys around in their outdoor adventures.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!