Clean Energy, Changing Power Markets, and Connecting with Consumers
By JANINE FINNELL, Founder and Clean Energy Ambassador, Leaders in Energy
I recently had the opportunity to attend “Charge” − the world’s first Energy Branding Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland on September 19-20, 2016. Iceland is capitalizing on green energy as a strategic branding tool to help promote investment in clean energy and related industries.
Iceland was the perfect place to hold the world’s first conference on energy branding because of its proactive approach in using almost 100% renewable electricity. While in Iceland, I also met a number of Leaders in Energy members working in clean energy. Here are my top 10 takeaways from the presentations, the conference field trips, and discussions with other participants from the host country, the U.S., Europe, and other countries.
Caption for photos (l-r): Charge conference opening slide; View of conference room; Harpa Conference Center in Reykjavik; and Opening address by Iceland Prime Minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson
- Branding is becoming important as a product differentiator and for connecting with consumers in changing power markets.
Iceland is an interesting country geologically. In Thingvellir National Park, one can view tectonic plates subsiding in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Game of Thrones fans may recognize some of the scenes from the park in the series.
Tectonic shifts are also metaphorically occurring in the electric utility industry worldwide. Tomaz Oresic, Chairman of the Board of Electro Maribor in Slovakia, outlined a number of major changes, including new players entering the electricity business with disruptive trends in the separation of commodity supply and services, customers playing an increasing role in the selection of their power providers, and the need to decarbonize the energy sector.
These trends are paving the way for companies to brand their electricity services, especially in more competitive markets where consumers can choose their supplier. Jim Rogers, former CEO of Duke Energy, pointed out that 19 states in the U.S. are now in competitive energy markets.
Electricity is also starting to get the “fun factor” through smart digital solutions. Differentiated services like these help to drive branding.
Ari Sargent, CEO of Powershop, an online electricity retailer from New Zealand, spoke about how his company’s mission is provide “power to the people.” Powershop ran a recent ad campaign that poked fun at notable figures, such as Donald Trump, that some say use their power for their own interests. The commercial features young Kiwi kids wearing orange wigs and spoofing the American Republican presidential candidate with slogans like “You can never be too greedy.” The video was posted on the company’s Facebook page and received more than a quarter-million views in the first six hours.
Powershop is working to take the clutter and jargon out of electric bills and make their services seamless through mobile apps that are easy for people to understand and use. Ari says that ALL of their customers are on their VIP list. The firm also seeks employees who are dedicated to this customer service mission. The core values the company looks for are: 1) “Give a shit”; 2) Be awesome; and 3) Embrace uniqueness. See more here.
In the utilities industry, brands can also be differentiated on trust. Tomaz cited a report by Cogent Reports titled “Low Brand Trust Leaves Utility Industry Unprepared for Future” that found that only one in three electric and natural gas utilities are ranked as a “Most Trusted Brand.” Some utilities have a higher brand trust than others. According to Jim, it’s what utilities do, not what they say, that builds trust.
- Examples of Companies Emphasizing Clean Energy and Customer Engagement
I was also intrigued by what other companies like Ovo Energy and Enel are doing vis-à-vis the deregulated utility market, clean energy, and branding.
Ryan O’Keeffe, from Italy’s Enel, talked about how their company has recently rebranded itself. It realized that the industry was changing rapidly, and they need to change with it. According to him, Enel is operating under a new energy paradigm characterized by disruption. Enel, he said, is well positioned to take advantage of industry changes related to “disintermediation and prosumers.” Prosumer refers to consumers that are also involved in productive activity.
Enel is active in 35 countries, with 90 GW of installed capacity from nuclear to wind, and has 70,000 employees. The firm recently announced its “Open Power” strategy, which involves opening access or providing energy to more people as a cornerstone of its strategic and operational approach. However, with 1.2 billion people in the world without access to power, Enel cannot do it alone. Open power demands action from both generation and distribution.
Enel’s new brand fully embodies the innovative, sustainable, multi-dimensional and open character of the Enel Group. Their strategy has five key components:
- Open energy to more people (O’Keeffe says this is a huge business opportunity).
- Open energy to new technologies.
- Open up new ways of managing energy for people (O’Keeffe says people are more sophisticated – give the customer more input).
- Open up energy to new uses (such as mobility, including electric vehicles).
- Open up to more partnerships.
Motion is an important part of the accelerating evolution his firm is leading in the energy industry and is another part of the brand identity. For example, Enel is sponsoring electric car races around the world in the Formula E electric car class. The goal in joining forces through partnerships like Formula E is to accelerate innovation for electric mobility and cutting-edge technologies in the field of renewables, smart grid and energy management.
OVO Energy CEO, Stephen Fitzpatrick, introduced his company as “a big small company in the UK” that employs 1,000 people, but they still think like a startup. OVO Energy was launched in 2009 with a simple idea – that he could do a better job of supplying energy to UK customers than existing energy companies. Ovo Energy was the recipient of the Best Energy Brand Award presented at the Gala Dinner.
He pointed to changes happening in technology and business such as Tinder, a dating and social search service app that started in 2012 and has since grown to 1 billion swipes a day in 2014.
Stephen believes in 2 to 3 years the energy sector could look totally different, with the falling cost of solar, distribution, and storage.
Increasingly, businesses are revolving around customer needs. Look at the big changes taking place in postal delivery, with Amazon moving to prime air and drone delivery. Stephen told the audience to think like a competitor like Jeff Bezos at Amazon, who famously said “your margin is my opportunity.”
Stephen went on to say that with more regulation, it could become harder to change. Companies with more money are often the ones making the regulations to help themselves. However, Stephen believes that customer demand will dominate.
He also discussed how CEOs often are removed from their employees and customers and can be out of touch, not investing in service. Given that we live in a village, company leaders need to be thinking about customers, relationships, and how they can serve society, not in an abstract way but be really connected.
He talked about user reviews playing a large role in trusting a particular company. Customers may not believe advertising and branding, but they will believe other user reviews, such as those on Trust Pilot and Glass Door. Companies must be able to back up reliable service with evidence. Once the grid becomes more digitized, we will see a big difference in consumer engagement.
Finally, Stephen pointed out that that cutting edge technology − thermostats, solar panels and batteries − is eating away at the standard utility business model. Standard utilities only focus on fulfilling their obligations to meet regulations and do not go one step further. They do not invest in service. Instead, they need to be thinking about how to innovate their services and associated technologies. Yet many large organizations often focus on what they can’t do, rather than what they can do. According to Stephen, this opens the door for smaller companies like Powershop, who thrive on doing what the large organizations will not.
- One company, Reykjavik Energy, is proactively working to attract more women into the energy business, in senior positions, and in the boardroom.
Bjarni Bjarnason, CEO of Reykjavik Energy, presented on his company’s activities to attract and promote more women in the energy sector. As the CEO, he can take action to get more women into senior levels and the boardroom through promotions and equalizing pay. He stated, “it is the duty of the executive management to execute gender equality.” His company is also helping to train young women in the trade to prepare them for working in the energy business.
It was also announced at the conference that Women in Energy has just started a chapter in Iceland.
- Connecting with Leaders in Energy members working in clean energy in Iceland
I met with Leaders in Energy member, Fe Amor P. Gudmundsson, who lives and works in Iceland. Fe initially reached out to me via LinkedIn because she was attracted to the work that I am doing as the Founder and Clean Energy Ambassador for Leaders in Energy.
Fe has been investigating the clean energy economy transition in Iceland for almost two years. She is keen on the contribution of the geothermal energy to this transition. She will continue working on this research project and will share her findings with the Leaders in Energy in due time.
Fe also discussed how the former President of Iceland, H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson, is very concerned and passionate about climate change issues. Grimsson initiated an assembly to bring together participants from around the world who are interested in the development of the Arctic and its consequences for the future of the globe. Previous events can be accessed under ”Assemblies” in the link here. While our visit in Iceland was brief, Fe said that “we have a common passion, so I am pretty sure our paths will cross again.”
Fridrik Larsen, the conference Chairman and CEO of Larsen Energy Branding, is also a Leaders in Energy member and has written for us. I was also able to meet Velina Apostolova at the conference who was honored in our group as our 2200th member. She served at the Emcee for the Charge conference.
- Meeting the Engerati Smart Power Network Team From London, England
It was wonderful to meet with Engerati colleagues, Ade Adeleke and Katie Dicker, at Charge, also Leaders in Energy members! This photo shows the studio setup at the Harpa Conference Center, where Engerati interviewed various conference participants, including the author. Leaders in Energy is also developing an article for Engerati related to green energy branding strategies for utilities to interactively engage with customers. The article will be shared when it is made available.
- Have you ever had lunch in a greenhouse?
One of the conference field trips provided guests with the opportunity to visit the Fridheimar Greenhouse to see four tomato varieties being grown in a greenhouse that includes their use of bumblebees from Holland and soil from Finland. To help cultivate the tomatoes, green energy from geothermal reservoirs is used. At lunch, we sampled a tomato “mood enhancer” with an Icelandic birch snaps served in a cup fashioned from a tomato; we were also served a variety of Bloody Mary drinks, tomato soup, a pasta with a tomato sauce, and a dessert made with fruit and green tomatoes.
Caption for photos (l-r): Hospitality with Tomato Snaps; Greenhouse Heated by Geothermal Energy; Charge Conference Attendees Enjoying Lunch at Fridheimer Greenhouse
The field trip included a trip to the Secret Lagoon featuring a geothermal-heated pool. In addition, we were able to visit Gullfoss, which has an inspiring story about a woman named Sigruidur Tomasdotter, who saved the site from being developed for hydropower and is known as the Savior of the Falls. More on this story is available here.
In terms of the geothermal resources that we saw at the greenhouse and the Secret Lagoon, it was also interesting to hear from Dr. Jefferson Tester of Cornell University at the conference. Jefferson made the point that the U.S. could similarly increase the role of geothermal resources to provide an important contribution to energy use, particularly for applications to heat water.
For example, 25% of U.S. primary energy usage occurs at temperatures below 120 degrees Celsius (or 240 degrees Fahrenheit). Currently, most of this energy is provided through the combustion of natural gas and oil. Of the various sectors that comprise U.S. energy demand, the building sector accounts for 40% of the total. Heating is the largest energy use associated within the building sector, and therefore represents a significant opportunity to realize efficiency gains and reductions in fossil fuel use using geothermal solutions.
To implement a low-carbon energy strategy, the United States will need to consider approaches to convert buildings to non-fossil energy heating. For more information, click here for a report by U.S. Department of Energy on geothermal energy, as well as on this video of Dr. Tester’s 2013 presentation when he was in Iceland in 2013 presenting on geothermal energy.
- The HS Orka Resource Park with geothermal power plants, the Blue Lagoon, and other companies raising fish and producing alternative fuels
As part of the conference, we also took a field trip to the HS Orka Resource Park, an example of how Iceland is branding green energy to attract newcomers to come here and invest in Iceland for their industry. HS Orka, the largest privately owned power company in Iceland, owns and operates two power plants at the Reykjanes peninsula, at Svartsengi and Reykjanes.
The excess resource stream from the power plants are used in a variety of businesses, including one of Iceland´s most popular attractions, the Blue Lagoon; the first renewable methanol plant, Carbon Recycling International; and others, including cosmetic production, biotechnology, a high tech fish farm, and fish drying facilities.
The Park employs 60 at the power plants and 600 total and aims “to serve industries and homes through the multiple, sustainable utilization of resources for the harnessing and sale of eco-friendly energy and other products for the benefit of its customers and society as whole.” More on the Resource Park is available here.
We also heard about the concept creator of the park, Albert Albertsson, from the HS Orka CEO, Asgier Margeirssin, who describes Albertsson as a real visionary who, instead of “thinking out the box,” believes instead of envisioning solutions that are accessible in your own head.
- Branding and connecting with customers
Social media listening
Tamara McCleary, CEO of Thulium, a company focused on branding, influence, and social business, discussed how the empowered consumer is smarter, and businesses need to be smarter for their energy destiny. Utilities are increasingly using social media to connect. For example, after Hurricane Sandy, PSE&G gained 43,000 followers on Twitter. Tamara talked about the evolution of social media usage by utilities and how it is now moving beyond the customary updates, power outages, and storm alerts. Utilities need to shift their message to what people care about and to learn more about their customers. They need to stop talking and start listening by taking advantage of the various business intelligence and social media tools that are available to help connect better with customers.
Mei Shibata, CEO of Essence Partners, pointed out that “misbranding” can be a problem. She discussed a survey that she conducted that looked at the images and branding of electric vehicles on Google. She found these images were misleading. Photos conveyed smaller vehicles that appeared inconvenient in terms of charging, etc., reducing the appeal of electric vehicles. Misbranding of green energy technology, in this case in the context of Google searches, can portray it as not cool, smart, or convenient.
Customers, not “Loads”
In terms of customer engagement, Jukka Ruusinen, CEO of Fingrid, a transmission company from Finland, discussed how his company is working very proactively with communities regarding the placement of transmission lines, rather than proceeding and waiting until it becomes confrontational. He said his company has customers – not “loads” – and that they are in the people business, not just in building transmission lines.
Branding sustainable energy
Ayoola Brimmo, Director of the Nordic Innovation Hub in Abu Dhabi, asked the question, “What is the value of the sustainable energy brand?” He thinks people have different ideas about the value of a sustainable energy brand. With nothing unifying, at this point, it can make the concept difficult to promote.
- Companies will do better when their “brand characteristics are rooted in their core operations.”
Martin Stadler, Director of Edenspiekermann from Germany, spoke of the paradigm shift occurring from product centric to customer centric brands. This shift has been taking place in most sectors, except for energy companies, where it is all about sales. Utilities need to be engaged with customers more seriously. The key? Start listening to them!
Martin says the current price premium for clean energy being paid by certain consumers needs to evolve. Instead of having a special premium for customers to have access to clean or green energy, clean energy programs should be a prerequisite for all customers. He says that companies that don’t make this transition will find themselves out of the market.
There is a misconception that branding is just about marketing. It is a way to enable companies to connect with their customers. Companies need to reach people at points that matter to them, to make their life better. Sometimes, firms may need to team up with partners who have more experience with dealing with their customers.
A lack of transparency and follow-through can create real problems. He gave the example of Southern California Gas, whose brand is now tarnished as a result of the massive leak at their huge underground natural gas storage facility at Aliso Canyon, where they did not follow through on their promise of safeguards.
Martin talked about how companies will do better when their “brand characteristics are rooted in their core operations.” This meshes with my own research and experience. For instance, MidAmerican Energy has made 100% renewable energy generation its goal in terms of its performance and in terms of its branding.
He did point out that green energy can have negative side effects. Impactless energy is not possible. While every source of energy has negative effects, we still need to make it as clean as possible.
- Sometimes you learn more about home when you’re away from it!
I chatted briefly with Whitaker B. Irvin, Jr, CEO of QuasarWave from Park City, Utah. Talking about Dominion Resources, the utility in the state of Virginia where I reside, I learned that Whitaker knew about work going on related to hydrogen fuel cells via a Dominion Resources facility in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Subsequently, I came across this article that discusses the project further.
Other notable facts from conference:
- Anders Lier, CEO of Enora, based in Norway, says Norway will ban new sales of fuel cars by 2025.
- Guany Camilla Aradottir from the sustainability team at Ikea Iceland says that electric vehicles are a key part of IKEA Group’s sustainability strategy to produce as much renewable energy as it consumes by 2020.
- Dr. Kevin Lane Keller of Dartmouth College announced that his college will be establishing an energy institute from a $100 million charitable donation.
Janine Finnell is the Founder and Clean Energy Ambassador of Leaders in Energy.
The mission of Leaders in Energy is to build a community of leaders to enable solutions for a sustainable energy system, economy, and world. More information on the organization is available at https://www.leadersinenergy.org and in the Leaders in Energy Research, Communication, Policies & Analysis (LERCPA) LinkedIn group.
Janine enjoys connecting with other leaders (current and aspiring!) in clean energy and sustainability who are interested in collaborating on projects and related opportunities to make a difference.
Please reach out to her at CleanEnergyAmbassador@leadersinenergy.org if you have any thoughts that you would like to share regarding this article or your interests in clean energy and sustainability.