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Pamela’s Blog:
The Energy Utility - re-imagined, re-invented

Are We “Ensuring” or “Enabling” Utility Service?

May 1, 2012

Almost every set of state public utility regulatory statutes has some version of the following charge to the Commission: “Ensure [or assure] that public utilities provide safe and adequate service at just and reasonable prices.”  Every Commission takes this charge very seriously and public utilities, in turn, work hard to provide energy utility service to customers with the required assurance.  Reliability of the service of delivering electricity over a network of wires is a high priority.  We set goals for achieving reliability with existing sources of generation and delivery; we plan entire systems of generation and delivery assets to achieve reliability of service in the future.  In a patriarchal way, we take care of energy utility consumers.  Peruse through utility websites and one is likely to find phrases such as “peace of mind” and “no worries.”

This attitude toward and prescription for the service has consequences that the served population likes and values.  It is easy; aside from paying a bill and – occasionally – reporting a service outage – a business owner/employee or a household need give little thought to the matter.  Other than the bill, the consequences of use are remote and the ability to influence those consequences even more so.  To be sure, a small percentage of energy utility service consumers do attempt to manage their bill and some succeed.  But for many households and businesses the perceived financial gain is not worth the perceived effort.  As with anything, this easy, thoughtless service has less desirable consequences as well, and those tend to manifest proportionately to the strength of the desirable consequences.  Consumers feel little or no connection to this service or their energy use.  It is no wonder that energy management is a hard sell, with the appeal largely only in the indirect consequence of monetary cost.  Accordingly, dealing with energy utility service does little for self-respect and, without self-respect, the individuals and businesses involved have no foundation from which to build community around the energy they need and use.

I can represent the consequences I perceive in a causal loop diagram that happens to make a reinforcing loop.  This is my mental model of the situation; others would certainly see it differently.  

To read the loop from the perspective of the “ensure” attitude toward and prescription for utility service, one might start at the top with the two factors influencing one’s connection to electricity use.  The less the ability to influence the consequences of using electricity and the less one knows and understands those consequences, the less the personal connection felt with respect to electricity use.  They move in the same direction – hence, the “S”.  The less the connection felt to electricity use, the less interest in self-management of that electricity use and the less the resulting management.  These also move in the same direction.  The less one engages in energy self-management, the less opportunity to build self-respect around this critical aspect of one’s life – another movement in the same direction.  The less self-respect one builds regarding energy use, the less willingness to participate in community around energy matters.  The less community that builds around energy matters, the less connection one feels to electricity use.  We come full circle, with everything moving in the same direction so that the feedback is a strengthening of the underlying phenomenon.  Depending on your perspective on the matter, this is either a vicious or a virtuous cycle.  In my perspective, it is a vicious one.

So what if we use different verbs?  What if, instead of “ensure” and “provide”, we use “enable” and “obtain?”  Let’s write this out so it is easy to say in one’s mind: “Enable public utilities to enable the public to obtain safe and adequate service at just and reasonable prices.”  What does this evoke in your imagination?

For me, this phrasing evokes interesting, diverse images and thoughts.  Here’s a few.  I perceive in this phrasing a mutual arrangement: utilities enable, members of the public obtain.  Rather than the passive consumers that the industry tends to presume, these customers take some responsibility to complete the process of obtaining the energy they need.  It is no longer simply a matter of flipping the switch.   I also sense in these words a greater breadth of what that enablement might be: not just kilowatt-hours delivered through the appropriate equipment but various combinations of support through which individuals or businesses obtain what energy they require to achieve the end purposes for which energy is necessary.  If the enablement results in greater knowledge and understanding of the consequences of using energy and greater ability to influence the consequences of use, the cycle flips.  Households and businesses feel more connection to the use of electricity, interest in energy self-management and thus self-management itself grows, the increasing self-management causes increasing self-respect and the self-respect supports the formation of community around managing energy use and its consequences.

A few utilities, with support from their commissions or governing boards are working this virtuous cycle already.  But, as a whole industry, we have done little more than stick a toe in the direction of “enable,” being firmly entrenched in “ensure.”  It would be worthwhile for Commissions or governing boards to host conversations in which stakeholders explored what a shift in the attitude toward and the prescription for service could mean.

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