The Utility-Microgrid Relationship: Dogs, Cats and a Dichotomy

Dec. 18, 2015
For those on either side of the utility-microgrid relationship — partnering or competing — here’s some interesting information about what customers think about utilities.

The utility-microgrid relationship gets scrutinized a lot by microgrid companies. And for good reason. Many have built their business models around partnering with utilities; others compete with utilities for customers.

Utilities are the dominant players in the electricity industry, and they have close ties to customers. So what do customers think, exactly, of their utilities?

It turns out they see them as dogs, in the best sense of the word: loyal and trustworthy, according to a recent survey that asked customers to choose the animal their utility most resembles.

Equally interesting, the customers surveyed proved cat-like, independent and willing to walk away from the utility to buy service from a competitor.

These results come from the 2015 State of the Customer in the Utility Sector, a survey by Distributed Energy Financial Group (DEFG). Working with members of the Utility Customer Research Consortium in November, DEFG surveyed more than 1,020 consumers to find what they think about utilities.

The survey uncovered a dichotomy. Customers are satisfied with their utilities, yet at the same time interested in choosing a different electricity supplier.

“On one hand, the utility sector is doing a good to great job in regard to customer satisfaction,” said Jamie Wimberly, the CEO of DEFG. “Utility customer service rated very highly in our survey and compared favorably in every case against other local service providers such as telephone or cable. On the other hand, when consumers were asked about their interest in residential solar, almost half of the respondents were extremely interested. Even more directly, when asked if they would choose another electricity provider than their local utility if given the choice, one in five respondents said they would exit.”

The upshot, Wimberly said, “is that any given utility could be in the first quartile of customer satisfaction rankings, and yet still lose customers over time.”

More than half of those surveyed gave their utility a top tier rating. Adults over 55 especially like their utilities (63 percent). That’s a finding likely to hearten microgrid companies that are partnering with utilities.

But the numbers also offer encouragement for microgrid companies that take a different approach to the utility-microgrid relationship, one where they compete for customers. Among younger adults, only 46 percent are satisfied with their utilities.

More significantly, about a quarter of utility customers said they would choose a different electric provider if given the option. An equal number said they would stay with the utility.

The largest percentage – more than half – had no strong feelings either way. That response may speak to the biggest challenge both utilities and microgrid companies face: Getting us to pay attention. Something real dogs have done a better job at figuring out.

More details about the survey are available here.

We write often about the utility-microgrid relationship at MicrogridKnowledge.com. Subscribe to our free newsletter to read more.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

Twitter: @ElisaWood

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