Here Comes the Sun: Planning for Different Customer Service Requirements and Expectations of Residential Solar Customers

DEFG and Enovation Partners Customer Surveys Point to Significant Impacts of Residential Solar on Utility Customer Service Strategy and Operations

Irvine, CA … Jamie Wimberly, CEO of DEFG LLC, and Dan Gabaldon, Founding Partner of Enovation Partners, presented before the NARUC Subcommittee of Consumers Affairs at the NARUC annual convention on the implications of increasing residential solar adoption on utility customer service and operations. The presentation included recent findings from customer surveys of the general American population as well as a separate survey focused on residential customers who have already adopted solar.

Customer research points to the expectation for significant customer support required. Jamie Wimberly

The primary findings from the customer surveys point to very different needs and expectations, now and going into the future, of residential solar customers as compared to traditional utility customers. The research clearly points to more and different types of contacts and service requirements of residential solar customers. The trend towards more residential adoption of PV are expected to intensify; therefore, the impacts on the utility customer service model will also be significant.

“The prevailing sense in the utility sector that customers will stop calling or not require as much customer service once they have solar PV on their homes is misguided to say the least,” stated Jamie Wimberly, CEO of DEFG LLC. “In fact, when you start to look at all the stages of the customer journey, from a customer doing the initial research to installation to billing and maintenance, our customer research points to the expectation for significant customer support required, and the potential for even more customer contacts. As a result, there is a clear need to start preparing for solar-specific service levels, staffing, system requirements and cost-to-serve calculations differentiated from the traditional model.”

The first customer survey conducted by DEFG and Enovation Partners focused on the general population (1,000+ Americans across the nation), with the vast majority of those customers (95 percent) currently without residential solar PV on their homes. Top line findings include:

  • Almost half of the Americans surveyed indicated that they were extremely interested (top 3 boxes on a 10-point scale) in an offer to switch to solar power. This finding confirms significant market demand and growth in residential PV adoption over the next five years.
  • The top reasons given by respondents for switching to solar include “cheaper electricity/ lower bill” (44 percent) and “cleaner and more environmentally friendly electricity” (33 percent).
  • Most Americans believe their local utility either supports residential solar or is neutral.
  • Almost a quarter of Americans surveyed believe that they would want more contact with their utility if they had solar on their home.
  • Almost a third of respondents would call their local utility first if they had billing inquiries even if they had a contract with a solar leasing company.
  • When asked about how different the level of customer service required from their local electric utility would be once they had solar on their homes, 24 percent of respondents believe that “significantly different” customer service from their utility would be required, and 45 percent believe “somewhat different.”
  • When asked about support requirements from their local electric utility at every stage of the customer journey, now and into the future, respondents clearly felt that “significant support” (top 3 boxes on a 10-point scale) would be required at every stage.

The second survey conducted by DEFG LLC and Enovation Partners focused on people (315 Americans across the nation) who currently have solar PV on their homes. The top line findings include:

  • The top reasons given for choosing to have solar on their homes were similar to the general population: electric bill savings and cleaner power.
  • There is an overall positive assessment of the utility role currently. Over half of the respondents surveyed indicated that their local utility was either “helpful” (37 percent) or “somewhat helpful” (18 percent) in the process of selecting and installing solar PV on their homes.
  • However, about 30 percent of respondents were neutral or negative about their current billing. Respondents reported multiple types of billing errors occurring, with a third of those requiring resolution by phone.
  • Overall, most reported meeting or exceeding their expectations for savings, though there was a wide variation of reported savings achieved (from over 30 percent savings to a few respondents who reported no or negative savings). Customers purchasing versus leasing PV generally obtained a higher level of savings.
  • Most PV customers reported a positive experience and would recommend others adopt solar.
  • Almost half of respondents have they either have “much more positive” (24 percent) or “somewhat more positive” (24 percent) feelings toward their local electric utility since switching to solar.
  • The expectation for more customer service support required found in the first survey was more than confirmed by the survey of Americans with solar PV on their homes. For every stage of the customer journey, respondents required “significant” (top 3 boxes on a 10-point scale) support from their local electric utility. When comparing the expected support requirements (first survey respondents) versus the actual support requirements (second survey respondents), the actual levels of customer support required of their local electric utility is much higher (10 points or more higher on average).

“Our research challenges the conventional wisdom that solar poses a grave threat to utilities’ relationship with their customers. We found just opposite,” noted Dan Gabaldon of Enovation. “Solar adopters are overwhelmingly positive about their decision, perhaps since over 85% met or exceeded their expected savings (40% reported savings of 20% or more on their electricity bill). But nearly half of the respondents indicated they had more positive feelings towards their utility since choosing solar, and most were interested in increasing the range of solar-related information and services from their utility.”

Go to presentation downloads.

DEFG LLC is a management consulting firm specializing in consumers and consumer-facing offerings in the utility sector.

Enovation Partners focuses on areas of rapid growth and innovation in the energy sector—e.g., distributed energy resources, natural gas infrastructure, and venture investment—providing strategic advice, advanced analytics and research, and networking opportunities (through its Cleantech Group affiliate).

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