The Utility Bill -- Friend or Foe?

Do you read your utility bill carefully? What do you learn? “Not very much,” says a study released last week by the American Council on an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The authors conclude that there is a missed opportunity to communicate clearly and with focus to residential consumers.

This graph shows what their survey found is presented in monthly bills:

Elements of Utility Bills

(Survey by ACEEE, November 2011)

A nationwide survey shows the most common elmenets and their placement on the utility bill

The utility bill is a monthly opportunity to speak to the consumer. Notice that nearly 25% of bills put current usage on page 2 or page 3. Clearly these bills are not organized for high-impact information presentation! Similarly, rates are not presented on all bills: hard to save when the price is not presented! The authors of the survey have a deeper wish-list: they would like to see peer-to-peer comparisons of energy usage, and useful information about energy efficiency. Both of these factors could help consumers make informed decisions, and cut down on customer service calls.

What’s so hard about changing a utility bill? Two things: software and regulations. First, utility billing systems are often quite old and hard to change. They need modernization. Second, a legacy of regulatory decisions adds a long list of fees and taxes to most bills. These must be presented to the consumer (leading to those pages and pages of confusion!). Put the two factors together, and you get a pound of paper and little useful information.

But, as the ACEEE authors point out, life will only get more confusing when smart meters are fully installed. How will consumers understand all that data? How will they understand time-of-day charges? The utility bill is a missed opportunity to smooth the way for these upgrades.

Utilities are also pushing consumers toward online billing, but if this week’s billing upgrade by PG&E is any sign, there is a way to go. PG&E, Northern California’s dominant utility, is requiring holders of online accounts to reconfirm their acceptance of terms and conditions. But, as many customers don’t remember their usernames and passwords, the utility will have to rebuild their online participation rates.

Utility bills—friend or foe? Send us your thoughts.

PS If you sign up for WattzOn’s free service, we’ll send you a consumer-friendly analysis of your utility bill each month. It’s part of our service to help consumers save energy.

For more information, see “The State of the Utility Bill”, November 2011, ACEEE.



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