Utilities Discovering Generational Response To Electric Service And Solar


Millennials are now starting their own households, which means they are paying their own electric bills. That creates opportunities for utilities that know how to target this tech-savvy age group. Electric companies that use apps in addition to paper messages and those that promote the benefits of solar will have a better chance of reaching the successors of Generation X.

That is among the findings of the J.D. Power 2015 Consumer Engagement Study for utilities. The report from the Westlake Village, Calif.-based information services company found that some utilities are more effective than others at marketing to Millennials.

J.D. Power defined the age groups as Pre-Boomers (born before 1946), Boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1976), Millennials (also called Gen Y; 1977-1994) and Gen Z (1995-2004). The study measured the level of residential customers' engagement with their electric utility's programs, products and services and how satisfied consumers were with their utilities. The study surveyed customers of 145 utilities and collected more than 27,000 responses throughout the U.S. and Canada.
According to the survey results, Millennials like to take control of their energy usage and are more likely than Pre-Boomers and Boomers to use software, such as online energy calculators and social media tools. Millennials also take advantage of environmental programs, such as solar electric incentives, more often than Pre-Boomers and Boomers. Consumers in the older generation tend to favor rebates, and they read messaging on statement inserts and newsletters.

The younger consumers are more likely to notice electronic messaging. Nearly 12% of Millennial customers recall receiving email messages from their utility, compared to 7.6% of Boomers and 6.1% of Pre-Boomers. More than 4% of Millennial respondents recall receiving social media messages from utilities' Facebook pages and other sites, while less than 0.5% of the older groups remember such messages.

The older groups are more likely to remember receiving paper messages. For example, 12.7% of Pre-Boomers and 9.2% of Boomers remember receiving bill newsletters, compared to about 5.8% of Millennial customers.

Social media was, not surprisingly, mostly the realm of the younger consumers.

‘Millennials are more technology-driven; they can't remember a time when there was not an Internet,’ says Dennis Smith, director of the energy practice for J.D. Power. ‘They are more willing to look at new technology. When utilities offer services such as apps or online energy usage tools, they will go in and embrace that more than older generations.’

The study also found that participation in renewable/green price plans is highest among Millennial customers (5%) and lowest among Pre-Boomer (1%), Boomer (1%) and Gen X (2%) customers. Millennials are interested in solar power and energy savings, Smith says. They want to go online and see how their energy usage affects their carbon footprint and look up incentives to install solar panels on their rooftops.

‘The older generation thinks of the traditional utility,’ Smith says. ‘They don't think about it unless the lights go out or when they pay the bill.’
The report mentioned utilities that performed well in certain categories. One utility that had a high rate of customer satisfaction was Entergy Mississippi. Mara M. Hartmann, senior lead communications specialist for Entergy Mississippi, notes that the company has a robust social media program, including Twitter, Facebook and videos supported through YouTube.

‘Any customers can use these tools, of course, but we do know that our younger customers are much more likely to communicate with us digitally and that they prefer this,’ Hartmann says. ‘We continue to keep up with the latest trends in communicating with customers, but we also haven't abandoned the old ways.’

She adds that Entergy launched a solar pilot project and is receiving very high interest, but the program is in its early stages.

Other energy companies know Millennials are a good target audience. Kelcy Pegler Jr., president of Wall, N.J.-based NRG Home Solar, says this demographic wants more than trendy technology. ‘It's not about apps,’ he says. ‘It's about being genuine. The Millennial group is more skeptical. It's not enough to just tell Millennials something. They need to see the proof.’

Millennials do indeed think about electricity because they often encounter their own crises related to a lack of electricity. They are carrying smartphones and other devices, Pegler says, so they are constantly thinking about recharging. In fact, NRG, which acquired the portable solar systems manufacturer Goal Zero, now sells portable flashlights and chargers. For larger solar purchases, parent company NRG Energy Inc. offers community solar.

‘Millennials are the main driver of the community solar movement,’ Pegler says. ‘They want clean energy, and they want to be progressive in the way they consume electricity. They are the perfect demographic for that concept.’

As more Millennials become homeowners, they will drive new concepts, such as smart home solutions and other programs, Pegler says. ‘We are very mindful of Millennials,’ he adds. ‘I don't think there has been a demographic that has thought about electricity as much as Millennials.’

Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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