It is finally dawning on Australia’s largest energy utilities: Not only are their customers terribly unfaithful – a quarter of them leave each year to find better deals elsewhere, they are also fairly ignorant, and have little understanding of even the basics of how electricity works, let alone the complexities of the modern industry.
This is nothing new, and for decades has possibly mattered little to the oligopoly that has dominated the industry. But that oligopoly is now being challenged by technology advances such as solar PV that are allowing customers to produce their own energy, and to store it, as well as smart technology and software packages that are allowing new competitors to enter the market.
The industry is sensing that it is, or is about to be, under siege, from what some people describe as the “democratisation” of energy, and it suddenly realises that the key to future prosperity may lie in making itself liked by its customers, and having to win the “votes” of its consumers. That might be easier said than done, but they are giving it a go.
Enter, stage left, Origin Energy, the nation’s largest utility, with a new campaign designed to raise awareness about what electricity is, how it is evolving, and what this means for consumers. Origin has decided to combine what it describes as a 21st century digital and social media campaign with an adaptation of a 1950s family favourite – the iconic Fantale.
Rather than short grabs about famous movie stars, Origin has decided to adapt these to tell some “energy tales” about how electricity is created, what happens when everyone turns their kettle on at the same time, and some of the new technology developments such as renewables, smart meters and electric vehicles.
Here’s an example below. In all, there are 25 such energy tales that can be found at its Knowledge is Power web page. The public is invited to further explore electricity issues at its Energy Explorer website, which delves deeper into how our energy systems will evolve, and what policies such as the renewable energy target and the carbon price mean.
Executive General Manager Phil Craig says Origin has been working on the campaign – which will involve the distribution of “millions” of lollies with their knowledge-baring wrappers – for many months.
“Energy is complex – there are conflicting objectives of reliability and availability, and around cost and emissions reductions,” he says. “And the way that the industry has presented information has not been easy for people. Consumers don’t understand why mechanism such as the renewable energy target and carbon pricing exist. There is nothing out there.”
So, can Origin Energy, which has had an outspoken position on some of these policies, particularly the RET, be relied upon as a reliable source of information? Craig says the company has made a conscious effort to be “apolitical” and “a-positional”. “We are trying to present generic balance information.”
The budget for the campaign has not been disclosed, but it will come from the marketing and communications budget. “We are reshaping the way we go to market,” he says.
Craig, however, agreed that the changing nature of energy markets, particularly the penetration of rooftop solar, and the introduction of smart meters, was an important factor in this campaign. Not only has it given consumers the power to generate their own electricity, it is also allowing other major consumer brands, retailers and even car makers such as Honda, to enter the home energy management market.
“There is increased competition,” Craig says. “We want (our customers) to be happy, and to stay and to buy more products. They have got to trust us and … there is not much love for the energy industry generally.
“We are the biggest player, so if there is not a lot of faith in the industry then we have the responsibility and opportunity to be first to step in and be helpful and responsive, to allow our customers to be more informed and make better decisions.”
Origin launched its campaign with some research from Galaxy, which found that 72 per cent of Australians considered themselves knowledgeable about energy and nearly half of them have conducted research on how to manage their energy use.
However, there was still widespread confusion about what is contributing to household energy use and costs. One example Origin cited was that 32 per cent believe that cooling (air conditioners and fans) contribute the most to their energy consumption, whereas the reality is that space cooling is on average only responsible for 6 per cent of household electricity usage.
Appliances, which are on average responsible for more than half of household electricity usage, were correctly identified by only 14 per cent of Australians as the greatest contributor.
The survey also found that searching for tips to save money (71 per cent) is much more popular than searching for information on green energy (33 per cent). And it found that people are most likely to turn to Google to find out more about energy (50 per cent), but not finding much of any use. (Ed: Hey, what about RenewEconomy?) Only 15 per cent headed to energy company websites.