Throughout the first COVID-19 lockdown, the electric utility industry throughout the world was disrupted. Demand, which is set to show a decline of two percent worldwide by the end of 2020, shifted from the industrial/commercial sector to the residential market. Going into the second lockdown, the picture for the industry is less dire. Demand is approaching normal levels in many jurisdictions. And the disruption hasn’t slowed the implementation of clean energy legislation and projects across the world.
As we enter the new reality driven by COVID-19, utilities need to increase their focus on the customer. Over the years, customers’ evaluations of their experiences with utilities have been low compared to many other industries. Going forward, utilities would likely benefit from being more mindful when it comes to showing empathy about their customers’ unique circumstances during this unprecedented health and economic crisis; customizing services to reflect receptivity to alternative energy sources in different regions and sectors; ensuring that customers trust utilities’ ability to deliver on brand promises; and taking steps to minimize outages and other disruptions.
This paper explores how electric utilities in Australia, Brazil, India, Japan, the U.S., the U.K., and several EU countries (France, Spain, Belgium) have demonstrated resilience during the pandemic by (1) empowering residential customers, (2) enabling a more robust commercial sector, (3) contributing to the economic recovery, and (4) demonstrating a solid commitment to technology transformation.
The four pillars that are expected to define utilities’ future
1. Empowering the residential customer
Consumers around the world have become accustomed to real-time communication, convenient online services, and meaningful engagement in all aspects of their lives. They have the same expectations of their utility providers. Electric utilities around the world have been lauded for maintaining services in these challenging times; demonstrating financial flexibility by using advanced analytics to stay ahead of residential customers’ ability to pay their bills; reaching out with regular, personalized communications through ambidextrous channels; and extending their environmental social and governance (ESG) initiatives.
2. Enabling a more robust commercial sector
Shutdowns during COVID-19 have resulted in lower energy demands from temporarily – and permanently -- shuttered businesses across the globe. Although federal governments in many countries have put programs in place to try to ensure that small and mid-sized businesses don’t have to shut their doors for good, the second shutdown is putting an additional strain on the sector. In this climate, utilities should use intelligent forecasting to help commercial customers temper their expectations regarding rate changes, payment forgiveness, and new money-saving services. Further, they should partner with the commercial sector on power sharing, demand management, and green energy initiatives.
3. Contributing to the economic recovery
Utilities in many countries are being called upon to play a major role in the coordinated response to COVID-19 and the economic recovery. They are collaborating with regulators, federal governments, and state governments (where applicable), as well as market operators and energy oversight planning bodies in some jurisdictions. Given their contributions to the recovery – and increasing recognition as an essential service – utilities are in a stronger position to negotiate with regulators and advocate for cost mitigation.
4. Demonstrating a solid commitment to technology transformation
Making the structural changes to continue to thrive in a post COVID-19 world will require a much more agile approach to operations and meeting employee needs. Utilities have already pivoted to remote working models to protect their employees during the shutdown. Going forward, they will likely need to increase their efforts to adopt digital operations and data collection to enable virtual work models, demonstrate to regulators that resources are shifting from capital investments to operational improvements, and continue to improve the customer experience.