Just about every utility in America has a low-income customer program or outreach program, many of which are a part of the government’s LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program). The California Public Utility Commission lists a number of low-income bill help options on their website, including the California Alternate Rates for Energy, The Family Electric Rate Assistance Program, federal programs administered by the Department of Community Services and Development, a project providing weatherization services, various utility-based options and one with extra allowances for medical issues.
Despite many thoughts to the contrary, low income is not a small portion of the utility customer population. Caroline Winn at SDG&E estimated that more than 30 percent of their customers would be eligible for income-qualified programs in an article she wrote for us on her utility’s work in the area.
Given that low-income populations are sometimes a quarter or more of a utility’s residential customers, it is vital for the industry understand how those customers feel, what they think about these programs and how well this market segment views their options from and communications with utilities.
Earlier this year, EcoPinion released a survey where marketing agency EcoAlign and management consulting firm DEFG collaborated with insiders from the Low Income Energy Issues Forum to create a survey of low-income utility customers and their views of programs and offerings. According to their data, four in ten households making less than $50,000 have trouble paying utility bills, at least once in awhile, and one in eight received some type of payment help this last year. (Of those who received help, one in five worked directly with the utility.)
When asked how hard it was to save on their bills, there were a range of responses from “nearly impossible” to “easy,” but most labeled it “somewhat challenging.” The good news, though, is that utility bills are at the top of the list for low-income consumers when prioritizing bills. (In other words, when money is available, it’s applied first to utility bills.)
In more good news, the survey found that most people (three out of four) find the information supplied by utility companies at least “somewhat useful,” and almost half find that info “easy to understand”—although, in an interesting flip on how most companies see customer communications these days, the older respondents lead the younger ones in thinking what a utility tells them is easy to digest. (The younger ones are, apparently, more confused.)
So, what did these survey respondents find most helpful in the giant drawer of utility program options for low-income assistance? Extended payments and allowing for more frequent payments without additional fees.
In a downside note, fewer than a third knew about programs listed in the survey on how to help with bills or lower energy use. If they did know, it was because the utility told them directly, either in bill inserts or through social media and emails.
So, once all is know about programs on conservation and savings, what’s the trigger point to engage? Now that’s where things get really interesting with this survey. Although fairly evenly divided among 30% categories, there was one small bump. The largest group (33%) wanted to see more than $30 a month in savings to join, and people who have had trouble paying bills at least once were more likely to be in that over $30 category than those who had no issues paying a bill. That same group of consumers, however, expressed great interest in energy savings programs with data and matching incentives.
One not-surprising find: About half of those surveyed wanted a mobile app with info on assistance programs, EE and conservation (as well as how to enroll). Mobile really is the customer future—across the board.