As COVID-19 continued its global spread, utilities’ top priority was delivering uninterrupted power. It was also vital to ensure workforce safety while maintaining grid security, and facilitate smooth operations amid on-site restrictions, lockdowns and physical-distancing regulations. Cash flow and balance sheets took a hit as the pandemic reduced industrial power demand, froze some energy services and increased customer defaults.
Today, as lockdowns start to ease and economies gradually reopen, utilities are shifting their focus toward medium- and longer-term challenges. Specifically: How can utility executives manage and accelerate energy transition in a post-pandemic world?
Interest in accelerating energy transition is still high
What’s promising in the aftermath of this crisis is that many stakeholders—energy consumers, executives and employees, policymakers and governments—continue with, or even reinforce their support for energy transition.
We surveyed 1,400 consumers across the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States to gauge their concern about economic and health issues and determine if there was a shift in their feelings and behaviors regarding climate change. We also interviewed utility executives in Europe and North America to gauge the industry’s readiness for actions required to move forward with energy transition.
The good news is that most consumers are more concerned now about the impact of climate change on the environment than prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. And many remain ready to invest more in energy efficiency than before the pandemic.
However, we see a gap between stated intentions and actual actions toward energy transition. Around 60% of consumers surveyed said they had become more aware of climate change and its environmental impact since the start of the outbreak, but 43% said they have currently minimized personal spending on climate change actions.
Our report explores the extent of this gap in scenarios unfolding across different regions. We recommend that closing the rift rests squarely on government incentives and utility outreach. Both must persuade and assist energy consumers to continue investing in energy transition—not only as the right thing to do, but also because it makes economic sense in view of the current cost competitiveness of renewables and energy efficiency.
Regaining momentum with government and utility support
Government stimulus can leverage or even resuscitate energy transition during crises. Right now, it’s difficult to tell just how much stimulus money will eventually flow into climate solutions. What’s clear is that government-backed initiatives can help modernize the energy infrastructure, increase job creation and revitalize the economy, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Government incentives are especially crucial when it comes to big-ticket purchases with hefty upfront investment such as rooftop solar or EVs. Tax credits or other incentives could go a long way in persuading customers who say they disagree with, or aren’t sure about, increasing their environmentally friendly purchases post-COVID (more than one in five customers, our survey reveals).
Our survey indicates the pandemic may have made customers more ready to invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, electric vehicles and other clean technologies in the longer term. Different types of incentive programs can be a powerful motivator to increase purchases of these products and services. More flexible payment options for consumers also hold interest.
Reactivating post-COVID customer relationships
As European and North American economies begin to recover, utilities need to rethink and reinvent their consumer strategies to overcome the current challenges to energy transition. This includes thinking more about viewing the customer experience as a holistic solution that solves multiple customer needs as they evolve.
According to our research, utilities that redefine their relationships with energy consumers at this time of crisis are much more likely than their peers to see a successful, sustainable transition to cleaner resources and energy efficiency. We see three key steps utilities can take to support profitable participation in the economic recovery, and the resumption of energy transition.
- Collaborate with energy consumers: Consumers need a reliable source of reasonably priced energy for their homes—more than pre-pandemic. But, as the crisis has demonstrated, utilities need them as well—not just for revenue, but as partners in funding and enabling the transition to clean energy. Some activities include a continuation of deferred and flexible payment programs, consumer dialogue and education and new partnerships.
- Develop a selective portfolio: The utilities industry is facing multiple scenarios in a post-COVID environment. Competition is increasing and utilities can no longer position themselves as monolithic providers of all things to all people. Rather, utilities should carefully assess the business climate in which they operate, incorporating demographic, economic and political considerations, as well as consumer sentiments related to energy transition. Then they should match their purpose, positioning and operations to those conditions.
- Create a resilient core for the next crisis: To continue the business case for renewables, utilities should invest in areas for greater operational efficiency such as modernizing power-generation operations, optimizing commercial assets, exploring new capabilities to hedge retail operations against credit risk, increasing grid flexibility and reinforcing the services portfolio to support the growing consumer demand for greener energy and solutions.
None of this will be easy, and there are many critical factors to consider. Most important of all, however, is the fact that consumers as well as utilities agree on the importance of clean energy and reinforced energy efficiency. Working together, consumers, utilities and governments can take significant steps forward in the transition to an economy based on renewable and efficiently used energy sources. This can benefit the environment, while building a foundation for sustainable growth for utilities in the future.