The Utility-Microgrid Relationship: Dogs, Cats and a Dichotomy

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The utility-microgrid relationship gets scrutinized a lot by microgrid companies. And for good reason. Many have built their business models around partnering with utilities; others compete with utilities for customers.

Utilities are the dominant players in the electricity industry, and they have close ties to customers. So what do customers think, exactly, of their utilities?

It turns out they see them as dogs, in the best sense of the word: loyal and trustworthy, according to a recent survey that asked customers to choose the animal their utility most resembles.

Equally interesting, the customers surveyed proved cat-like, independent and willing to walk away from the utility to buy service from a competitor.

These results come from the 2015 State of the Customer in the Utility Sector, a survey by Distributed Energy Financial Group (DEFG). Working with members of the Utility Customer Research Consortium in November, DEFG surveyed more than 1,020 consumers to find what they think about utilities.

The survey uncovered a dichotomy. Customers are satisfied with their utilities, yet at the same time interested in choosing a different electricity supplier.

“On one hand, the utility sector is doing a good to great job in regard to customer satisfaction,” said Jamie Wimberly, the CEO of DEFG. “Utility customer service rated very highly in our survey and compared favorably in every case against other local service providers such as telephone or cable. On the other hand, when consumers were asked about their interest in residential solar, almost half of the respondents were extremely interested. Even more directly, when asked if they would choose another electricity provider than their local utility if given the choice, one in five respondents said they would exit.”

The upshot, Wimberly said, “is that any given utility could be in the first quartile of customer satisfaction rankings, and yet still lose customers over time.”

More than half of those surveyed gave their utility a top tier rating. Adults over 55 especially like their utilities (63 percent). That’s a finding likely to hearten microgrid companies that are partnering with utilities.

But the numbers also offer encouragement for microgrid companies that take a different approach to the utility-microgrid relationship, one where they compete for customers. Among younger adults, only 46 percent are satisfied with their utilities.

More significantly, about a quarter of utility customers said they would choose a different electric provider if given the option. An equal number said they would stay with the utility.

The largest percentage – more than half – had no strong feelings either way. That response may speak to the biggest challenge both utilities and microgrid companies face: Getting us to pay attention. Something real dogs have done a better job at figuring out.

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More details about the survey are available here.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.