EMI Consulting Insights
  • Posted 12.15.15 by Danny Molvik, Consultant
    3 Strategies to make your utility website more user-centric

    Customers are increasingly reliant on the web as their first source for gathering information on products and services. According to a report from Fleishman-Hillard (1), 89% of consumers use search engines (Google, Bing, etc.) to find information before making purchase decisions. Because of the growing reliance on websites as a communication tool, it is imperative that your website is both usable and searchable if you hope to effectively serve your customers. According to J.D. Power & Associates, engaged customers are more likely to prefer self-service options available through a website more than calling the service product provider. (2) Through my experience conducting web usability studies with a broad range of utility customers (including contractors, businesses, and homeowners), there are three strategies utilities use to successfully gain and maintain a user-centric website:

    Guide the user through the website with pictures and graphics: Images allow users and trade allies to scan web pages quickly for information or provide cues directly related to the reason for visiting your website. Users are drawn to and strongly prefer graphical links as navigation tools, which help to streamline the amount of information they have to read.

    Provide clear signposting: Most users visit your website to accomplish a specific task (e.g., pay a bill, report an outage, check on incentive availability). What they want is guidance on how to accomplish this task as easily and quickly as possible. You must anticipate what users need, and provide clear headings and links that will lead them to specific and relevant information.

    Know your users: You can anticipate users’ needs based on web analytics and historical communications. Provide information that addresses their common questions and directs them to more detailed sources if desired. Use language that is easily understood by your target customer group, and avoid industry jargon whenever possible.

    Providing a more user-centric website will improve the quality of your customers’ online experience and increase their satisfaction with your products and services overall. Benefits from adopting these strategies often include improved website usability, reduced resource burden, increased utility program participation, and strengthened customer relationships. To achieve this, the focus of your website needs to shift from an emphasis on providing to customers information you see as valuable, to instead focusing on information that your customers desire.

    (1) http://fleishmanhillard.com/2012/01/31/2012-digital-influence-index-shows-internet-as-leading-influence-in-consumer-purchasing-choices/
    (2) http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/2014-consumer-engagement-study
  • Posted 12.3.15 by Michael Hamiliton, Consultant
    Breaking Apart Small Business Decisions regarding HVAC Maintenance Contracts:

    WHAT MATTERS MOST?

    According to the Small Business Administration, there are 23 million small businesses in the U.S. that account for over half of the nonfarm private gross domestic product and occupy 30-50% of all commercial space. (1) With increasing activity by small startup companies and lower rates of startup failure, this sector will undoubtedly remain a vital contributor of the U.S. economy in the foreseeable future. (2)

    Now pair this projection with a recent finding from the J.D. Power 2014 Electric Utility Business Customer Satisfaction Study – overall satisfaction with electric utility providers is lowest among small businesses. (3) Businesses spending between $250 and $499 per month on their electric utility bill averaged about 10 points lower (on J.D. Power’s 1000 point scale) than businesses with higher utility bills.

    Why are small businesses relatively less satisfied with utility providers? Small businesses are diverse and have unique operational needs and preferences, particularly with respect to energy-related equipment and usage. Additionally, many small business owners simply do not have time and/or resources to worry about “secondary” issues like their energy bills.

    At EMI Consulting, we use innovative market research methods to help our utility clients better understand their small business customers. For example, EMI Consulting recently worked with the California investor-owned utilities to characterize how business owners and managers make decisions about the maintenance of their heating, air conditioning, and ventilation (HVAC) systems (a copy of the report is available here ). We estimated the relative importance of decision factors related to the purchase of an HVAC maintenance contract (as shown in the figure to the right). (4) Not surprisingly, the cost of a maintenance contract is important to small business customers (accounting for 26% of the overall decision weight, on average). But our results also show that small businesses greatly value improvements in the reliability of their HVAC systems (21% of the overall decision weight). The small business stakeholders we surveyed expressed comparatively little concern over improvements in the longevity of their HVAC systems, the number of maintenance visits they receive per year, indoor air quality benefits, and environmental impacts.

    While it is clear that contract cost plays an important role in small business customers’ maintenance contract decisions, our findings also suggest that the value proposition that may resonate most deeply with the small business sector is that maintenance contracts improve the reliability of HVAC systems. Insights like this could have a big effect for programs promoting the benefits of regular maintenance.

    (1) Source: http://www.sba.gov/offices/headquarters/ocpl/resources/13493
    (2) Source: http://www.kauffman.org/newsroom/2015/05/nations-startup-activity-reverses-five-year-downward-trend-annual-kauffman-index-reports
    (3) Source: http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/2014-electric-utility-business-customer-satisfaction-study
    (4) As revealed by commercial stakeholders responsible for two or fewer business locations comprising five or fewer HVAC units.
  • Posted 11.4.15 by Dave Van Holde, Managing Engineer
    The Market for Air Source Heat Pumps is Getting Hotter

    EMI Consulting’s recent study found that heating with air source heat pumps is often less expensive than with oil or electric furnaces. Heat pumps were more cost effective than oil furnaces in 40 states and more cost effective than electric furnaces in 47 states.  Although natural gas usually provides the least expensive heat source, heat pumps are often the best alternative when access to natural gas is expensive or unavailable. Heat pumps also offer a value no other heating system can provide; they act as an air conditioning system. This 2-in-1 package can avoid added costs of traditional air conditioning systems or add an additional benefit to homeowners without a current AC system.

    Meanwhile, air source heat pump technologies, efficiencies, and markets continue to improve and expand. Heat pump shipments have increased 43% since 2009, and yet they account for only 9% of residential space heating according to the Air Conditioning Heating and Refrigeration Institute and the Energy Information Administration, respectively. From our assessment, heat pumps have substantial room for growth.

    Check out our Tech Insight or our Full Report!

  • Posted 6.10.15 by Michael Blonsky, Consultant
    One Storage Technology to Rule Them All?

    Short answer: Absolutely not.

     While it seems like lithium-ion batteries will continue to dominate the EV/hybrid car market, the grid energy storage market is still very much up for grabs. Finding the right technology for a particular application is complicated given the wide range of important technical factors. Peak leveling and other high use systems require excellent cyclability, power capacity and operating efficiency. Backup power systems should focus more on high storage efficiency, power capacity, and energy capacity. Grid stabilization systems should be specialized to quickly and efficiently adjust power output and switch between charging and discharging states. Grid interconnection locations greatly influence technical and economic needs for storage systems; Utility scale systems require high efficiency and long lifetimes, while distributed systems are often small, modular, and low-maintenance.

     Once the application’s important factors are defined, it is still difficult to choose from all of the possible energy storage technologies. For supply side applications, pumped hydropower and compressed air storage are the most mature solutions, but lead to environmental concerns and energy loss from transmission. Large-scale batteries like flow batteries and sodium batteries have significant technical advantages in efficiency and lifetime. A wide range of technologies is available for demand side and distributed applications, each offering something a little different. Batteries (namely Li-ion and lead acid) have many strong technical features, thermal storage is very cheap and practical for specific applications, ultracapacitors have very high power capacities, and flywheel storage is a mature solution with a long lifetime. Given such a wide variety of factors and technology options, it is likely that many energy storage systems will find their niche in the grid. 

  • Posted 5.19.15 by Andrea Salazar, Senior Consultant
    More Data = More Savings?

    The Value of Submeter Data in Energy Information System Implementations

    In a perfect world, facilities would have time series data on every single piece of equipment as well as other sensor data (temperature, pressure, occupancy) that could be mined for energy savings opportunities, right? Maybe.

     The falling costs of computing power and data storage mean that “big data” is starting to permeate every facet of modern life. In the built environment, this data is being fed into energy information systems (EIS) - software and hardware systems that gather energy-related data, run it through an analytics engine, and present building operators with analyses that allow them to reduce energy consumption.

     EIS platforms use benchmarking, normalization, year-over-year energy usage comparisons, and anomaly detection to uncover inefficiencies that can be difficult to find otherwise. While a number of analyses enabled by these tools can be performed using just whole-building energy consumption data, the number and types of analyses that can be performed increases with more granular data.

    However, deeper metering can be expensive. One of the keys to a cost-effective EIS implementation is to strike a balance between providing highly accurate data to the analytics engine (more submeters) and keeping costs down (less submeters). Unfortunately, not much information is currently available regarding the cost-effectiveness of EIS implementations.

     In my recent research I attempted to remedy this situation. Using depth of metering, cost, and energy savings data from 27 commercial building EIS implementations, I found that with some exceptions, deeper submetering is correlated to deeper energy savings and those additional savings are achieved cost-effectively. In this case it appears that more data is mo’ betta’.

  • Posted 5.5.15 by Greg Lewis, Operations Manager
    EMI Consulting sets sail to save lives in the 21st Annual Leukemia Cup Regatta.

    If you tilt your head the right way, and it’s the right time of year, EMI Consulting’s offices overlook Elliot Bay.  Not surprising in a city largely surrounded by water but we all relish being so close to the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. An active and adventurous bunch with a passion to do work that matters, EMI Consulting staff jumped at the chance to step aboard Epilogue and sail in this year’s Leukemia Cup Regatta sponsored by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. This nationwide event is held at yacht clubs across North America with the goal of raising money to fight and cure blood cancers.  In addition to being a corporate sponsor of this event, EMI Consulting will sail Epilogue with a crew of ten staff members and two blood cancer patients/survivors in an effort to raise money for a great cause, have a great day on the water, and secure bragging rights until next year’s race. 

  • Posted 2.18.15 by Todd Malinick, Managing Consultant
    “Build it and they will come”

    Energy efficiency program implementation is not always a Field of Dreams. We often act is if the energy efficiency programs we work with are in demand. However, the pathway to energy efficiency program participation often does not involve a customer seeking out a program – the reality is that participation in many programs occurs through contractors or trade allies. And as a matter of fact, notable proportions of customers are often not even aware they participated in a program!

    This is inherently an issue of supply and demand. Utilities work hard to develop and supply programs that are effective at reducing overall energy consumption. But often, customers are not actively demanding these same programs, so getting customers to participate can be a challenge and overall program outcomes can be sub-optimal. This is because there is often a disconnect between supply and demand, but this disconnect can be overcome. Strategic marketing and promotional campaigns can do a lot to stimulate demand if they are well thought out and appeal to the right customers, and focus on the right wants and needs. As a starting point for ensuring program designers and implementers are considering the right factors, it is important to consider two questions:

    Who is your program targeting? This is about understanding your target customer (and these are rarely all your customers). Decades of offering energy efficiency programs have shown that not all customers participate in programs. However, many customers participate repeatedly year-after-year. Thus, recruitment resources can be more efficiently spent focusing on the customers that are more likely to participate. Relatedly, one size does not fit all. Segmenting your customers and customizing messages and promotions targeted to the different segments is clearly a winning strategy. Though not common enough in the energy efficiency industry, segmentation is catching on and will most certainly be a foundational component of program designs in the future.

    What do your customers value? Determining the right messaging is not always an easy and straightforward task. Customers participate in energy efficiency programs for a widerange of reasons: to save money, to improve equipment reliability, to reduce impacts on the environment, to preserve business operations, because their friends or family recommended it, the list goes on... Customers can effectively be drawn into programs by emphasizing the value propositions that resonate with their particular wants and needs. However, programs are often developed and implemented without in-depth insights into what the prospective participants really want – or what the program can really deliver.

    Market research can help bridge the frequent chasm between supply and demand. Such research can help to develop a robust, well-informed marketing strategy that leverages customer insights to maximize the performance of energy efficiency programs. Also, in this era of the customer-oriented marketplace, working to ensure that your programs are meeting your customer wants and needs will help foster stronger customer engagement and improved customer satisfaction.