The state of California faces an ongoing risk of power outages due to extreme heatwaves and challenging grid conditions on hot summer days. Recognizing the exigent nature of this threat, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) released a landmark grid reliability decision in November 2021. This decision proposes a wave of initiatives, designed to improve grid reliability in the summers of 2022 and 2023, and ushers in a new era of demand flexibility.
This next era of demand flexibility asks California residents to play a larger role in summer grid management. Provisions in this new decision create several mechanisms to empower residents and ensure they know when and how they can make the greatest impact on grid stability. Some of these mechanisms expand efforts that have been in existence for the decades, like the “Flex Alert” mass media campaign designed to encourage Californians to save energy during times of grid stress on hot days. Others will be newer, such as opportunities for residents’ electric vehicles (EVs) to support the grid. Building on the type of traditional energy conservation Californians have known for decades, collectively these efforts will expose more residents to demand response (DR) and prepare them to engage in a more continuous and dynamic relationship with their energy provider. In this relationship, what is asked of the customer may change over time as grid needs evolve.
The CPUC and the California investor-owned utilities (IOUs) will optimize these innovative approaches based on their efficacy at responding to the shifting needs of the grid. To support these efforts, Opinion Dynamics is conducting first-of-kind studies to assess the effectiveness of the Flex Alert paid media campaign and evaluate the potential to leverage automated DR technologies to reduce EV charging during peak periods. Unsurprisingly, as demand flexibility is a newer topic, early research findings reveal that Californians have a low awareness (and several misperceptions) of California’s electricity supply limitations and the actions they can take to help resolve them. Building a base level of knowledge about these topics through Marketing, Education, and Outreach (ME&O) will be critically important to ensure the State meets its customer-supported grid reliability goals. Three key issues have emerged in the research findings as especially important to address through ME&O efforts: helping Californians differentiate between multiple calls to action; educating residents about why, when, and how to respond to these calls to actions; and combatting misperceptions among EV owners about automated demand response.
Differentiating: Flex Alert, Public Safety Power Shutoff, or Something Else?
Californians now face a plethora of calls to action in relation to California’s dynamic grid conditions, including preparing for Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), reducing load during Flex Alerts, shifting use off-peak with time-of-use rates, and signing up for DR and other load flexibility programs. Results from several of our studies—including monthly tracking surveys with California residents, a qualitative diary study of how Californians think about energy messaging in their daily lives, and a survey of EV owners in California—show Californians are conflating these different calls to action, especially PSPS and Flex Alerts.
California IOUs administer a PSPS when the risk of wildfires is high enough that utility equipment poses a risk of sparking a fire. During a PSPS event, the utility will remotely turn off the local transmission and distribution system to protect local communities. In contrast, Flex Alerts are voluntary, emergency calls for consumers to conserve electricity during peak periods in the summer to avoid potential power outages due to electricity supply limitations.
Our tracking survey showed that 75% of Californians share the false belief that the reason the grid operator may ask Californians to conserve energy during periods of peak electricity demand through a Flex Alert is to prevent wildfires. In reality, Flex Alerts are called to prevent power outages. Moreover, some California EV drivers wrongly identified that a benefit of participating in a DR program for EVs was preventing PSPS events. We asked a smaller group Californians to describe the difference between PSPS and a Flex Alert through a qualitative Diary Study. Nearly half of the study participants were unable to accurately describe these two alerts in a way that demonstrated an understanding of the distinctions between the two.
This conflation is a concern because the ask and implications for customers associated with Flex Alerts and PSPS are very different, despite both tending to occur on hot days during heat waves. Flex Alerts empower Californians to help avoid grid-related potential power outages by taking action to save energy between 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. on Flex Alert days. For PSPS, the outage will happen regardless of any actions taken by residents of the affected area; but, residents should take action to charge their electronic devices and EVs and cool their homes prior to the outage.
The CPUC is currently leveraging ME&O to address these conflations by promoting new Flex Alert Campaign materials explaining the difference between PSPS, Flex Alerts, and TOU rates. Efforts like this can help improve emergency preparedness, reduce the incidence of customers responding incorrectly to these calls to action, and prevent customer confusion and frustration when their efforts don’t result in the intended outcomes.
Educating: Why, When, and How to take action?
The duck curve issue in California means that Californians’ actions currently have the greatest impact when they save energy during periods of peak demand, between 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., especially on hot days. Although this issue has been front and center in the minds of utility professionals for the past decade, there is still a need to better communicate this concept to the public.
Why: Californians do not appear to understand the extent of California’s grid reliability challenges. Surprisingly, monthly tracking surveys consistently show that ~60% of Californians think innovations in battery storage have made it possible to store enough energy generated by solar panels when the sun is shining to completely power our electricity grid when it gets dark. In reality, although battery storage is on the precipice of extraordinary growth, energy storage capacity still only represents less than 11% of California’s solar photovoltaic capacity in 2020.
When: In June 2021, only 44% of Californians were able to pick out 4:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m. as the correct time period to conserve during a Flex Alert. In the same month, the CPUC launched the paid media campaign designed to increased awareness and understanding of Flex Alerts. As of September 2021, awareness of the correct time period in which to save had increased to 64%.
Q: When a Flex Alert is called, during what time period is it most important for Californians to conserve electricity?
How: Heating and cooling loads are generally the largest source of energy consumption for an individual end use for residential customers. During the summer, one of the most meaningful ways Californians can shift their load while maintaining their comfort on Flex Alert days is to pre-cool their home before 4:00 p.m. However, only 33% of Californians reported they heard of pre-cooling before taking the monthly tracking survey. Furthermore, only 36% of Californians correctly identified that pre-cooling their homes before 4:00 p.m. uses more clean energy compared to regular cooling from 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
We don’t need Californians to memorize facts about our electricity grid. However, helping Californians understand that the amount of clean energy available to them varies throughout the day and they will be asked to shift their consumption accordingly can help prime them to take appropriate action in response to dynamic grid needs.
Combatting: Misperceptions and Misinformation
The new CPUC grid reliability proceeding calls for the integration of EVs into a residential DR program designed to mitigate grid emergencies. This year, Opinion Dynamics worked with an IOU to assess the potential to leverage EV charging control technologies for DR applications, characterize the EV DR resource potential, and understand EV owners’ incentive design preferences for managed charging. This study revealed that EVs provide a meaningful resource for California’s electric grid but leveraging them in this way poses entirely new customer considerations. We find that even though EV drivers tend to be more energy literate, they still have misconceptions about managing their EV charging to support grid needs. State officials were reminded of this early this summer, when a viral social media post spread rapidly with the false interpretation that a recent Flex Alert asking EV owners to charge their EV before 4:00 p.m. meant that California does not have enough electricity for EV drivers to charge their vehicles.
Through this EV DR study, we called 10 DR events with a group of over 200 EV owners and found that the events effectively shifted EV load. The events appeared to be minimally invasive to the customer and we did not receive any complaints from participants. Most participants we followed up with didn’t even realize the study was happening.
Moving beyond the pilot level, however, EV owners’ lack of familiarity with charging control technology still presents a large barrier to adoption and program participation. Our survey of 3,000 EV owners revealed 76% of them had never heard of a managed charging program. Most surveyed EV owners had concerns about allowing their utility to adjust their charging, including worries about their EV not being charged when needed, the “big brother is watching” effect of allowing someone else to have control over their charger, and potential disruptions to their charging schedule.
EV owners tend to be more environmentally conscious than the general energy consumer. Yet less than 2% of survey respondents made the connection that allowing their utility to adjust their charging has environmental benefits without prompting. Utility efforts to educate new EV owners and prospective buyers about how their EV charging impacts the electricity grid differently throughout the day and the programs and rates available to them to help manage their charging are likely to be well-received.
Empowering in the New Era of Demand Flexibility
The provisions in the November 2021 landmark CPUC grid reliability decision provide new opportunities for Californians to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through demand flexibility. But demand flexibility concepts are challenging to grasp. The grid needs are difficult to describe; calls to action and the time periods in which we ask customers to act are likely to evolve over time. Automated DR can help customers adapt to dynamic signals with minimal effort, but customers are likely to be reticent to hand over control of their appliances and devices to their utility. Yet the need to ensure customers are prepared to protect the grid and their families during energy emergencies is growing ever more important with our changing climate. Beyond California, the deaths and illness that resulted from power outages due to heatwaves in the Northwest this summer and the cold front in Texas last winter drive home this point.
Empowering customers in this new era of demand flexibility can only happen if residents are able to differentiate between multiple calls to action; have been educated to know when, why, and how to respond to the differing calls to action; and can recognize and combat misperception and misinformation with facts. Taking the time to research and understand the knowledge, attitudinal, and behavioral barriers to demand flexibility and developing ME&O efforts to address customers’ needs will be critical to ensuring residents have the tools needed do their part to support the grid in California and beyond.