Why Can't I Understand My Utility Bill?

The EIA reports that homeowners spend over $200B on their electric and gas utility bills each year. Do you know any other large industry that does not provide basic consumer information in a clear, crisp manner, ready to help the customer buy more stuff?

WattzOn provides software tools to help utility_bill.pngcompanies and their customers get quick access to utility data in an easy-to-understand format. Our footprint covers 90% of U.S. homes, so we look at a lot of utility bills. 

And we’re dismayed.  It is very hard for the consumer to read over their utility bill to understand their usage and to learn where to save energy. Many energy-saving experts have written about the delay between the date of energy use to the date the bill is received, but there’s a lot that can be done with the printed page, (no matter when it comes!)

The layout of a printed utility bill is the output of a complex regulatory process, one that considers cost-recovery, special taxes, seasonal charges, costs of printing and mailing and legal protections. Much of this cannot be changed in the short run.  But here are 5 suggestions that everyone can agree on that will improve paper utility bills.

1.  Use big fonts for the big stuff and small fonts for the small stuff. It’s amazing, but lots of trivial and opaque information is presented to the consumer as if it is as important. Numerous charges and taxes are part of the bill, but when they cost $1.20 or less, they are the small stuff.  Help the consumer focus, print the big stuff in larger font.
2.  Separate fixed charges from charges that vary with usage. It is hard for a consumer to start saving energy if they can’t see how their actions might impact the bill.  Typically transmission and distribution charges vary with usage, as do generation charges. But they are presented in different places, and with different rates. Show the consumer the part of their bill that varies with usage in one place. Then they can work on reducing that amount.
3.  One bill per utility. We’ve seen a number of customers who get two separate bills per month from the same utility. Perhaps they added solar, perhaps they added natural gas. For the consumer, it becomes nearly impossible to understand what’s going on, much less save energy.  Regulators!  No fancy adjustments needed, just a simple fix: One bill per utility!
4. Retail energy is not a ( ) item.  When a consumer buys energy from a retail provider, they have invested time and effort to understand the product and its benefits. To the consumer, the decision reflects their efforts, and is important. But when the utility sends out the bill, the retail energy provider and its data are buried in small print and literally presented within parentheses. Utilities should align with their customer, and gain consumer engagement by reporting data on retail energy choice with the importance it has to the customer.
5.  Label the graphs! Most utilities print bar charts of past usage. But few label them. What is the consumer supposed to gain from the chart without clear labels?  Of course this sounds like a third-grade teacher scolding the class, but utilities, Label Your Graphs!

Each year utilities spend hundreds of millions of dollars on customer engagement and track customer satisfaction scores closely. Perversely, when a customer spends more time with their utility bill, their customer satisfaction rating of that utility increases.  So simple fixes to utility bills could help both consumers and the utility.  We hope this happens soon. 

Meanwhile…talk to WattzOn. We can provide consumer-permissioned utility data from around the country, and present it clearly, setting the stage for meaningful customer engagement and energy savings.