Our team, including Grant Young of Zumio, assisted with phone polling, completed a literature review then got talking to people in stakeholder workshops and focus groups on these complex issues. The final product was an information pack that spelled out the problems and potential solutions that was released under creative commons license for other advocates and communicators to use. We also shared insights and research findings with the network of energy market participants who contributed to the work. Graphic design by Toby Cotton of Arc Communications.
In 2012, there was a high-profile public debate about electricity prices: how much they were going up, and what was causing it. A carbon price was introduced that did apply a one-off increase in the unit price of electricity. At the time, several commentators were attributing most or all of the noticeable rise in electricity bills to this policy measure.
The Total Environment Centre, however, have an ongoing concern that a significant and growing proportion of the electricity price per kilowatt-hour of electricity in fact comes from the cost of networks themselves. Their concern, also shared by consumer protection and green groups is that there is strong business incentive for network operators to focus their expertise on building infrastructure rather than curbing electricity waste in the system. Constantly augmenting network is expensive - creating more future price rises for all consumers, not just those contributing to higher peak demand.
It allows energy use and greenhouse gas emissions to keep growing without checks and balances on demand. As industry insiders, it was difficult to tell how much this concept resonated with people and then, how to address possible misconceptions.
Our initial research questions were: Why do consumers think their prices are rising? What are their thoughts and feeling about that? What are their personal values around the need for network?
A draft version of the slide show below was developed after discussion with experts to summarise the situation. We tested it on two focus groups and then adjusted to reflect their feedback. It is intended to tell a story with data and express a new perspectives on the electricity market using more than just prose writing. The discussions amongst the group indicated that most could understand the concept of peak growth and network growth, some were already aware it was contributing to bill rises, but the proportional impact was new information.
There is a global discipline of technology and practice that focus on ways to reduce demand in the system. It encompasses many things - from process changes at large industrial sites through to web portals, smart meters, remote controlled pool pumps to real-time energy displays in homes. Demand-side participation (DSP) or demand-side management (DSM) are terms used by experts to group all these things. Sometimes network managers or policy makers use terms like 'empowering customers by giving them more information on their electricity use' for a general description, but all these terms are likely to mean nothing or be quite vague for a normal household.
To answer this question we first identified a range of examples of what DSM might mean in practice - according to a visioning exercise with industry experts and from literature. We developed some draft images and simple descriptions for focus groups, asking participants with no special expertise to rank the concepts according to what they thought would be most desirable and most effective for saving energy. This picture set included both policy measures and technology in the home - all expressed from an audience's point of view, however, rather from a network engineer's needs.
Every one of these concepts is one element of a demand-side approach and all have benefits to network management. Both focus groups, however, saw some as better than others. All nominated the "range of new ways to see how much energy you use at home.." (with a picture of ipad and phone) as highly desirable and effective, and "green deals" got a positive ranking too. Digital meters were more positive than negative, but with reservations. The other measures were scattered around on the scale. Notably, "regulatory targets" and "network regulation" - the two major calls to action by the TEC - were not seen as especially effective, one group even giving them the lowest rank of all options.
Based on feedback from the groups we split the demand-side measures into the two separate decks shown above: what the organisation is working for, and what this might mean.
The overarching recommendation from this project was to clearly connect issues and policy proposals to people's personal experiences. That is, describe and illustrate what benefits to a consumer could come from the targets and regulation proposed.
We also reported other findings of the attitudes research to a range of stakeholders working in the national electricity market including consumer personas and expert visioning workshop, the 'hot issues' of the day regarding energy, smart meters and personal cost of living pressure.
The slide kits shown here are publicly available via the TEC website and can be embedded into any other site. They were primarily conceived as a tool for background briefings, for example for other groups who may want to tackle the issues but don't have a strong technical background on network management.
Looking at these over a year later, I think this project delivered a useful step towards stronger communications on the issue. At the time discussion of network issues was occurring mostly inside expert spheres and without much of a link to the day-to-day experience of consumers. This debate has since moved on and matured, partly thanks to a lot of media attention. For organisations who want to advocate for more network regulation, or those who provide information products or advanced energy services, there is a huge scope for developing these ideas further in lay persons terms.