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Utility consumers expect meaningful and tangible action on climate change from their providers, according to a new survey

The survey of 34,000 utility customers in 17 countries shows growing expectations for utility providers: meaningful action on climate change, increased reliability, and options for renewable at-home power generation.

Electrical polls.

Houston energy experts say companies must work towards mitigating climate change — but many also say consumers play a vital role in helping the world transition to clean and renewable fuel sources.

One area where many people are demanding action on climate change is with their utility provider. That’s according to a new survey of 34,000 utility customers worldwide from consulting firm Ernst & Young.

To learn more, Houston Public Media spoke with Greg Guthridge, who helped author the report.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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I know this was a big survey, but can you just tell me about some of the key findings, maybe anything that you found surprising when the results started coming in?

There is a paradox that has come forth in the research, and that is that 50% of consumers have a strong understanding of concepts such as sustainability. It drops off a little bit to 41% for carbon neutral and 33% for net zero. But you’re largely looking at about 50% of the population that resonates and understands sustainable messaging.

The other 50%, however, don’t. So there is a strong implication here for utilities and energy providers to really broaden their message beyond even just green or reliability or price to include a more sophisticated value proposition for customers. But there’s still a lot of work to do to really get a broad group of consumers active and engaged in the sustainability storyline around utilities.

Although there is some confusion around the terms, people really expect that utility companies are working towards sustainability, and I thought it was interesting that the expectation is asking for real, tangible actions. Can you tell me more about that?

Again, it's a bit of a paradox, about 50% of consumers understand all the different sustainability terms, but a whopping 71% of consumers expect their energy provider, their local utility, to lean in and and demonstrate through paperless billing, electric fleets, renewable energy sources, education programs, and any number of other kinds of capabilities – but they’re really looking for action and not just a branding exercise.

As we dug into this a bit more detail, we noticed in particular Generation Z and millennials, which now represent just about 50% of the residential population. They, in particular, want to see true action in movements around sustainability. They’re not completely motivated on an affordability storyline.

This is an interesting time for this survey as we’re kind of coming out of the pandemic. I’m wondering if folks are thinking about if this kind of work from home experiment we’ve all had, if that’s impacting how they think about their future energy use?

Through the course of the research, we found some very interesting correlation between sustainability and digital, and what we call this new segment, this “at-home worker” segment. They represent about 15-25% of the population, so they’re a huge segment from an energy provider perspective. As a new segment of customers, they’re very active in their energy monitoring. They monitor their energy largely about 75% on a monthly basis. They’re extremely energy sensitive.

And there is a direct correlation with the importance that they put on reliability. And there’s a direct correlation on their interest in home generation – 86% of consumers, residential consumers, are interested in solar or some other form of home generation. It offers utilities and energy providers a real opportunity to cater and position a larger, more sophisticated sort of value proposition around sustainability directly to the people that are the most energy sensitive.

How can a survey like this and the information from the consumers that responded, how can this help energy providers kind of approach this transition to cleaner energy?

In our research here over the last year, the role of Generation Z and millennials is now over 50 percent of the paying population in North America. And they behave very differently. They’re very digital. They’re much more sensitive to seeing real action around sustainability.