Scholarly article on topic 'Framing of customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration by electric utility representatives'

Framing of customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration by electric utility representatives Academic research paper on "Social and economic geography"

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Utilities Policy
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{"Electric utilities" / "Consumer engagement" / "Renewable energy" / Customers / Consumers / States}

Abstract of research paper on Social and economic geography, author of scientific article — Jennie C. Stephens, Daniel J. Kopin, Elizabeth J. Wilson, Tarla Rai Peterson

Abstract Distributed and renewable energy technologies are changing the electricity sector and altering traditional relationships between electric utilities and their customers. This analysis involving focus groups with fourteen electric utilities in seven U.S. states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Texas, and Vermont) demonstrates divergence in framing among utility representatives in terms of how they characterize customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration. This research is among the first qualitative studies comparing utility representatives’ discourse across the United States. Utilities in Texas and Vermont are particularly divergent especially in their framing of customer engagement opportunities during this time of energy transition.

Academic research paper on topic "Framing of customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration by electric utility representatives"

Utilities Policy xxx (2017) 1-6

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Policy note

Framing of customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration by electric utility representatives

Jennie C. Stephens a *, Daniel J. Kopin b, Elizabeth J. Wilson c, Tarla Rai Peterson d

a Global Resilience Institute, School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, Northeastern University, 360 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115, USA b Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont, 617 Main Street, Burlington, VT, 05405, USA c Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, 301 19th Ave South, Minneapolis, MN, 55455, USA d Department of Communications, University of Texas El Paso, TX 79968, USA



Article history:

Received 6 September 2016

Received in revised form

22 May 2017

Accepted 22 May 2017

Available online xxx


Electric utilities

Consumer engagement

Renewable energy




Distributed and renewable energy technologies are changing the electricity sector and altering traditional relationships between electric utilities and their customers. This analysis involving focus groups with fourteen electric utilities in seven U.S. states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Texas, and Vermont) demonstrates divergence in framing among utility representatives in terms of how they characterize customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration. This research is among the first qualitative studies comparing utility representatives' discourse across the United States. Utilities in Texas and Vermont are particularly divergent especially in their framing of customer engagement opportunities during this time of energy transition.

© 2017 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND

license (

1. Introduction

Electric utilities play a critical role in society; their historical purpose has been to generate and distribute electricity to households, communities, businesses and other organizations, recovering their costs through rates charged (Wilson et al., 2008). During the current recent period of rapid technological change, the traditional role of electric utilities is shifting. As their costs have fallen (Trancik, 2015), distributed and renewable energy have been deployed at faster rates than the most sophisticated energy models predicted (Roberts, 2012). With growing opportunities for customers to generate and store their own electricity, purchase "green" power, and reduce consumption through energy efficiency improvements and demand-side management, the conventional business models of electric utilities are being challenged (Wilson et al., 2008). Some within the electricity sector describe this phenomenon as "the utility death spiral" (Graffy and Kihm, 2014;

* Corresponding author. E-mail addresses: (J.C. Stephens), dkopin@uvm. edu (D.J. Kopin), (E.J. Wilson), (T.R. Peterson).

Felder and Athawale, 2014). Others welcome innovation and the transformation of power systems (Lacey, 2013; Pentland, 2014; Stephens et al., 2015).

During this time of rapid technological change, growing policy pressures related to climate change, decreasing costs, and growing consumer engagement on energy issues, electric utilities worldwide are responding in different ways. While some are resisting shifts from the legacy energy system, others are embracing ambitious goals, particularly in terms of expanding the use of renewable energy resources to as high as 100% at the country (Strunz, 2014), state, and city levels (Vermont Public Service Department, 2014). Tension lies in determining how much consumers and "prosumers" (consumers who produce their own electricity) should support the fixed transmission and distribution costs of the legacy system (Bagozzi, 2008; Grijalva and Tariq, 2011; Warrick, 2015; David, 2014), as well as backup resources for reliability. Incumbent utility organizations play a critical role in the changing energy landscape. However, the diversity of responses to the forces of change in terms of organizational culture are under-analyzed in the research literature on energy transitions (Wilson et al., 2008; Hirsh, 1989; Nonnes, 2004). Acknowledging this gap, this research considers the nature of utility engagement with customers, particularly with regard to the potential of renewable energy resources.

0957-1787/© 2017 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (

J.C. Stephens et al. / Utilities Policy xxx (2017) 1-6

This research examines variation in how electric utility representatives characterize customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration, paying specific attention to divergence based on different ownership structures and state contexts. To assess variation, we conducted focus groups with representatives from 14 utilities across seven different states in the United States to contrast the priorities and perspectives revealed for different types of utilities. We first provide background on the structures of electric utilities and the energy policy context of the seven different states. We then explain the focus group methodology, followed by a discussion of the results, and conclusions that highlight larger implications.

2. Structure of electric utilities

Electric utilities can be organized as public and private organizations, and they are sometimes considered a hybrid form due to extensive yet differentiated regulation. Utilities generate electric power, operate high-voltage transmission systems to bring power to central sub-stations, and run the low-voltage distribution grids that bring electric power to customers. In the United States, there are three main types of utilities: investor owned utilities (IOUs), municipally owned utilities (munis), and cooperatively owned utilities (co-ops) (Wilson et al., 2008). While IOUs are privately owned, both munis and co-ops reflect democratic ideals of serving the public through participatory representation and local control (Atkinson and Halvorsen, 1986).

Culture and practice within electric utilities are influenced by and reflect both organizational and regulatory structures. IOUs, which currently serve 72 percent of the U.S. population, are private companies financed by shareholder equity and bond debt. They typically are larger financially than municipal utilities and can also have multi-state operations or multiple subsidiaries (Regulatory Assistance Project, 2011). IOUs are subject to federal and state economic regulations, with new projects and investments approved by public utility commissions. In traditionally regulated states, utilities are authorized to earn a return on their investment. In restructured states, generation is separated from other functions and customers are able to choose their suppliers (Hirsh, 1999; KaTeske, 2002). Munis are the most numerous type of utility; more than 2000 munis serve 21 million customers accounting for 15 percent of electricity sales (APPA. U.S, 2013). While the majority of munis are small and serve rural communities, some are large (for example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power provides power and water to more than a million customers). Munis can access tax-exempt financing to fund their projects. Munis are governed either directly by the local city council or by another locally elected body, although some state's munis and co-ops are also subject to state regulation (RAP, 2011). Munis may be vertically integrated and generate their own power or only purchase power for distribution, making them transmission dependent. Rural electric co-ops are nonprofit organizations; the 912 generation and distribution co-ops cover 70 percent of the U.S. land area, serve 19 million customers, and account for 12 percent of electricity sales (APPA. U.S, 2013). They generally serve sparsely populated rural areas, are tax exempt, and qualify for low-rate federal loans for infrastructure investments. Co-ops are owned by their customer members and are governed by a membership-elected board that is responsible for setting policy and procedures for its management. Financing, governance structure, and regulatory environment all contribute to utility organizational culture and shape relationships with customers. We hypothesize that the type of ownership influences the views of utility representatives in terms of customer engagement opportunities and that publicly owned munis and member owned cooperatives may be more positively inclined

toward engagement due to their ownership structure and generally smaller scale.

3. State-level energy policy context

While all utilities are required to comply with federal laws and regulations governing wholesale electricity markets and environmental protection, the locus of much energy policy in the United States is at the state level and thus varies across the country (Fischlein et al., 2014; Wilson and Stephens, 2009). State-level heterogeneity in energy resources, energy consumption patterns, and the political and economic context for energy is substantial (Stephens et al., 2008, 2014). States also vary in the scale of electricity production, consumption, and price (Tables 1 and 2). This research involved utilities from seven different states: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Texas, and Vermont. California and Texas are both very large states with distinctly different energy policy profiles. Vermont is among the smallest of the states, known for relatively progressive energy policy (McKibben, 2015). From a policy perspective, Massachusetts and New York are important states in the Northeast, while Minnesota and Illinois are both influential states in the Midwest. We hypothesize that the state context (i.e., socio-political and economic factors and public policies) shapes views of utility representatives about customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration.

Among the seven states included in this research, diversity also exists in the number and types of electric utilities within each state and the percentage of electricity provided from each type of utility (Table 2). Munis and co-ops account for more than 30% of sales in Minnesota and Texas although they make up less than 5% of sales in California and New York. Although munis and co-ops serve fewer communities than IOUs, these customer-owned organizations are important to the electric utility landscape. This research includes IOUs, munis, and co-ops in order to understand diversity among these different types of organizations.

4. Methods

To explore variation in framing about customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration in the context of different ownership structures and different states, we conducted a series of 14 focus groups in seven different states (one IOU and one muni or co-op in each state). Focus groups are semi-structured discussions used to explore a specific set of issues; the group interaction encourages respondents to explore and clarify individual and shared perspectives (Tong et al., 2007). Conducting the same focus group protocol with different organizations enables comparative analysis.

We conducted the focus groups between September 2012 and June 2013. Each focus group included four to eight employees from the same electric utility. Focus groups consisted mainly of engineers, analysts, and public relations staff. Each session followed a set of guiding questions asking the participants to discuss challenges and opportunities of electric industry change and key actors involved in that change. Details of the focus group protocol are provided in the supplementary materials. Responses to the focus group questions were analyzed to assess whether customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration were characterized in positive or negative ways.

Audio recordings of the focus groups were professionally transcribed and content analysis (Mayring, 2000) was conducted using NVivo text analysis software. A codebook was developed iteratively to characterize how customer engagement and renewable energy were discussed and represented during each focus group. A variety

J.C. Stephens et al. / Utilities Policy xxx (2017) 1-6 3

Table 1

Electricity production & consumption by state: 2014 generation & total retail sales.

State Restructured or Traditionally Regulated Net Generation (MWh) Total Retail Sales (MWh) Electricity Importer or Exporter Average retail price (cents/ kWh)

California Restructured 198,807,622 262,584,786 Importer 15.15

Illinois Restructured 202,143,878 141,540,287 Exporter 9.36

Massachusetts Restructured 31,118,591 54,469,292 Importer 15.35

Minnesota Traditional 56,998,330 68,719,367 Importer 9.52

New York Restructured 137,122,202 147,371,913 Importer 16.25

Texas Restructured 437,629,668 389,669,820 Exporter 8.94

Vermont Traditional 7,031,394 5,569,861 Exporter 14.57

Source: EIA, 2016 (EIA, 2016a)

Table 2

Number, utility type, and % of electricity sales per state in 2014.

State Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) Municipal Utilities (Munis) Cooperative Utilities (Co-ops) Energy Sales from

" Other %

Number of % of electricity sales from Number of % of electricity sales from Number of Co- % of electricity sales from

IOUs IOUs Munis Munis ops Co-ops

California 5 83% 30 5% 3 0% 12.3%

Illinois 3 59 12 3 21 4 33.9%

Massachusetts 3 50 25 13 0 0 37.0%

Minnesota 4 70 62 12 44 18 0.1%

New York 13 62 12 2 1 0 36.7%

Texas 7 12 25 13 69 17 58.3%

Vermont 1 78 8 13 2 9 0.0%

Source: EIA, 2016 (EIA, 2016b)

of words were used in the focus groups to refer to electricity customers, including "customer," "consumer," "ratepayer," "user," and, in some instances, "folks," "people," "members," and "the public." Each time these words were used, we analyzed the underlying context coding each usage as either positive, neutral, or negative with respect to engagement.

Comments were coded as positive if customer engagement opportunities were characterized in a way that reflected customer interest in energy system change and technology advancement. Sentences were coded as negative if customers were characterized as uninterested in or unengaged with energy transition. Sentences were coded as neutral if customers were discussed but without an explicit positive or negative characterization. Text analysis was also conducted for all mentions of renewable energy (under searches for "renewable," "wind," "solar," and "storage"), and each of these sentences was coded as either positive, negative or neutral with regard to the perceived potential of renewable energy integration. A sentence was coded as "positive" toward renewable energy if integration was framed favorably; a sentence was coded as "negative" toward renewable energy if integration was framed unfavorably. The coding scheme differentiating positive and negative frames reflect utility employee's characterization of customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration; these codes do not reflect perceptions of specific utility customers or of specific types of renewable energy technologies.

5. Results

5.1. Variations in framing of customer engagement opportunities

Our analysis reveals variation in framing customer engagement opportunities. The results of all 14 focus groups show that utility representatives tend to refer to customer engagement more positively (64%) than negatively (36%) (Fig. 1a); the degree of negative comments is notable. When these percentages are separated out by utility structure, the analysis shows that the lOUs refer to customer engagement opportunities positively 56% of the time (Fig. 1b) while

the munis and co-ops do so 75% of the time (Fig. 1b), possibly reflecting the closer relationship fostered by the ownership structure. Among the seven different states, we found a range of relative positive versus negative comments about customer engagement opportunities (Fig. 2). The negative mentions are lowest in Vermont at 14% and highest in Texas at 74%. The findings for Texas are striking and appear to show that both utility type and state context are relevant to characterizations about customer engagement opportunities. Based on this sample, state context appears to be particularly relevant suggesting that state-level cultural, institutional and policy differences are influential.

An example of positive framing is: "[O]ne of the greatest opportunities in customer engagement, and figuring out how to get the customer connected with their information in really engaging ways, so that they can be excited about changing their behaviors, being more environmentally sensitive, thinking about the costs, and in doing that, moving the masses to really improve how energy is used, and how energy policy actually happens" (Vermont lOU). Examples of negative framing include: "Frankly, people don't care...... they have no

clue. They know what they're bill is, but they have no clue on how much energy they use and frankly, they don't care" (MN, lOU), and "[P]olicy makers are thinking about this but the people, like voters, consumers, just aren't that concerned" (CA, Muni).

5.2. Variations in framing of renewable energy integration

The analysis also reveals variation in how utility representatives frame opportunities with renewable energy integration. While all states in the study sample had adopted policies promoting renewable resources, at the time of the focus groups these states were at different levels of integrating renewable energy resources. Overall, utility representatives in all 14 focus groups refer to opportunities for renewable energy integration in more positive (77%) than negative (23%) ways (Fig. 3a). The breakdown of positive versus negative comments is almost identical for the lOUs as compared to the munis and co-ops.

Distinct differences in the framing of renewable energy

J.C. Stephens et al. / Utilities Policy xxx (2017) 1-6

Fig. 1. Percent of positive versus negative comments made about customer engagement opportunities in (a) the total of all 14 focus groups, and (b) in the focus groups with cooperative or municipally owned utilities versus the focus groups with investor-owned utilities (IOUs).

Fig. 2. Comparative percentage of positive versus negative comments made about customer engagement opportunities related to energy transition during focus groups in each of the seven states.

integration as either positive or negative are apparent when the different states are compared (Fig. 3b). In California and Illinois, utility employees consistently framed renewable energy integration positively while utility employees discussed negative aspects of renewable energy integration 46% of the time in Texas, and 54% in Minnesota. As all four of these states have high levels of renewable energy penetration; these results suggest that the state context appears to be more influential than ownership structure in shaping the framing of renewable energy opportunities.

Examples of positive framing with regard to renewable energy include: "I would say one of the top opportunities is to be able to fully integrate, increase adoption of renewable energies into the electric grid" (TX, Co-Op/Muni), and "... from a sustainability perspective, you're using less energy, you're burning less fossil fuel, and you're actually able to.... integrate more renewable into the grid, as well"(NY,

Co-Op/Muni). Examples of negative framing include: "Until natural gas stops being cheap again, the people are going to go .... central stations, solar those things aren't going to be economic for very long

time." (TX, IOU), and "It wasn't but not too many years ago......we

had ten power plants. That was it. Now over time we're going to have hundreds. It's huge. It's solar panels somewhere. It's a fuel center somewhere. It's all of these things. Technology is supposed to make things simpler, and in some ways it's making it far, far more complex" (MN, Co-Op/Muni).

5.3. Relationship between framing of customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration

To assess the relationship between a given electric utility's framing of customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration, we used Spearman's rho ranked correlation to determine significance. This statistical tool can be used to measure the association between two variables that are not normally distributed, and is effective even with small sample sizes (Fahoome, 2002). Positive significant relationships were found between negative mentions related customer engagement and negative mentions related to renewable energy for IOUs (Fig. 4a), Co-Op/ Munis (Fig. 4b) as well as for privately and publicly owned utilities by state (Fig. 4c). Utilities with high levels of negative framing on customer engagement opportunities also exhibited high levels of negative framing on renewable energy integration. The association is strongest among utility representatives from the same state (Fig. 4c), which is consistent with findings suggesting that state context has a strong influence on framing.

6. Discussion of results

This research offers some insight into how diverse electric utilities are navigating the energy transition, including higher penetration of renewable energy resources. Among the electric utilities in this study, the munis and co-ops frame customer engagement opportunities in a slightly more positive way than IOUs (Fig. 1b). Our results also suggest that state context influences framing of customer engagement opportunities by utility representatives. Variation among utilities highlights the apparent importance of state context, such as socio-political and economic factors and public policies (Rabe and Borick, 2012; Rabe, 2006).

With respect to renewable energy integration, our results suggest no difference in framing among different types of utilities. Once again, however, state context seems to have a strong influence on framing. As many renewable energy policies are at the statelevel, and deployment is often local, this state-specificity is understandable. These findings highlight the importance of state policies and state-level norms, culture and institutions in shaping energy sector transition.

The wide variation in the level of negative discourse about customer engagement opportunities among utility representatives, particularly comparing Vermont and Texas, is notable and deserves additional inquiry. The correlations suggest that negative framing about customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration may be reinforcing. Among the seven states included in this research, Texas stands out as anomalous. Further research could examine how retail electricity market restructuring and retail customer choice shape framing by utility representatives.

Additional future research extending this analysis to other states, including southern states with more limited renewable energy deployment, and differing socio-political, economic, and policy contexts, could provide for broader comparison. Expanding the analysis to more utilities in different locations and over time would be helpful to understand the rapidly changing energy landscape

J.C. Stephens et al. / Utilities Policy xxx (2017) 1-6

Fig. 3. Percentage of positive and negative comments made about renewable energy opportunities. (a) When the data from all 14 utilities is aggregated renewable energy were mentioned positively 77% of the time and negatively 23% of the time. (b) comparative percentages in each of the seven states.

Fig. 4. Significant and positive relationships were found between negative mentions of customer engagement opportunities and negative mentions of renewable energy integration based on type, (a) lOUs rs(5) = 0.88, p = 0.0098 r2 = 0.77, (b) Co-Ops/Munis (rs(5) = 0.95, p = 0.0010, r2 = 0.91 (not all co-ops and munis had negative mentions), and of utilities based on (c) the state they are operating within (rs(5) = 0.84, p = 0.0177, r2 = 0.71). Each dot in 4c represents all utilities in each of the seven states.

from the perspective of utility representatives. Future research might also distinguish renewable energy resources by type and scale (prosumer, community, and utility). Research that explores customer perceptions of electric utilities and renewable energy would also be a valuable complement to this research. Additional research exploring why the state-level context is so influential would also be helpful. Additionally, future research focused more explicitly on the mechanisms of utility decision-making could provide valuable insight about the relationships among the forces of technological, policy, and organizational change.

7. Conclusions

As energy systems transition by integrating more renewable energy (Brown et al., 2015), operational and cultural challenges are inevitable, especially given the continuing emphasis on maintaining electric system reliability (Turnheim and Geels, 2013; Stafford

and Wilson, 2016). This comparative assessment of how electric utility representatives view opportunities for customer engagement and renewable energy integration highlights the role of organizational culture in the transition.

Just as the rapid growth of mobile phones was disruptive to traditional telephone companies and their customer relationships, renewable energy technologies and associated advances in power grid operations and energy management are disrupting traditional electric utilities. This study is among the first to consider how utility representatives are framing customer engagement opportunities and renewable energy integration in this dynamic context.

We conclude that where the utility is located, that is the statelevel socio-political, economic, and policy context, shapes how utilities are navigating this new terrain. Where a utility is located will affect framing of customer engagement and renewable energy more so than whether the utility is an 1OU, muni, or co-op. In Vermont, utility representatives are engaging with change by

J.C. Stephens et al. / Utilities Policy xxx (2017) 1-6

envisioning the potential of empowering their customers with distributed renewable energy. ln Texas, the utility representatives expressed more negative framing of customer engagement opportunities. This conclusion highlights the role of state context. This research contributes to the limited research on the effects of distribution associated with renewable energy on utility organizational culture and potential correlates. Given the complex heterogeneity within the United States, we caution against generalizations from these findings. We believe, however, that the preliminary statistical analysis demonstrates and justifies additional research focused on electric utilities' responses to evolving pressures toward energy system change.

The transition of energy systems, including the integration of renewable energy resources, involves a long and complex process and multiple actors (Stafford and Wilson, 2016). This transition includes both technological and cultural change, including change in the relationship between electric utilities and their customers. Our research reflects one approach to understanding how organizational cultures are shaping energy systems of tomorrow.


This research was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF-SES 1127697). The authors also acknowledge with appreciation the electric utility representatives who volunteered to participate in the focus groups. The contributions of graduate student research assistants Adrienne Strubb and Michelle Wenderlich are also greatly appreciated. The manuscript was also greatly improved in response to helpful comments and editorial suggestions from two anonymous reviewers and the editor.


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