By John Ashford
When it comes to keeping the lights on and restoring power, residential customers give their investor-owned electric utilities top marks. According to a Hawthorn Group/TargetPoint nationwide poll of IOU residential customers, almost 80 percent answered positively when asked about their utility company’s ability to provide reliable service. The poll also found that 72 percent said their utility responds quickly to end outages.
Customer opinions of their public service commission correlates closely to their opinion of their utility. The polling data shows if customers are happy with their utility, they are also pleased with their state regulator.
The online survey of 1,690 registered voters was conducted for Hawthorn by Alexandria, VA-based TargetPoint Consulting between January 28 and February 3. In most instances, the poll found few differences in the responses of electric utility customers located either in regulated or restructured states or those states with elected or appointed PSC members.
Consumers remain intensely concerned about the economy generally and electricity prices specifically, the poll found. Asked about a series of electricity issues being considered by state leaders over the next few years, the poll found 87 percent named “keeping electricity prices predictable and affordable” as a major priority. It received the most support of any issue, ahead of other policies such as climate change, investment in smart grid technology and efforts to encourage conservation, energy efficiency or renewable energy.
Price also trumps policy preferences. While numerous national polls show widespread support for solar energy, Hawthorn’s research takes a deeper dive to examine different scenarios. For example, if government action required utilities to increase the amount of electricity from solar would also raise customer bills by $10-$12 a month, the data shows more than two-thirds would oppose the requirement.
Looking at the big picture, the Hawthorn poll reveals the same consumer focus on pocketbook issues. Almost 60 percent of consumers surveyed said the economy, including jobs and personal financial issues, was the single biggest problem they faced, dwarfing their concerns about affordable health care, taxes and spending, even terrorism.
Generally, electric utilities are also doing a good job of communicating with their customers. The poll found that roughly two-thirds of customers said their utility does provide information about conservation and efficiency measures that enable them to save on their monthly bills.
But the survey also showed that on some electricity issues, utility customers are not well-informed. For example, more than half the respondents said solar energy already generates more than 10 percent of U.S. electricity, when, in fact, just one percent of electricity comes from the sun.
The poll also found that electricity consumers don’t fully understand the role and responsibilities of their state public service commissions. Asked which state government agency to contact about a problem with either your utility bill or electric service, roughly half could not provide an answer. Just 15 percent correctly named their public service or utility commission, the survey found.
Still, performance matters. The major takeaway from our poll is the residential consumer’s applause for their investor-owned utility’s ability to ensure reliability. But utilities and especially regulators have both an opportunity to improve communications with consumers by providing, more information about the nation’s electricity grid and the vital role a strong electric system plays in supporting the economy.
John Ashford is chairman and CEO of The Hawthorn Group, a public affairs and strategic communications firm based in Alexandria, VA, specializing in electricity and energy policy issues.