Interview with Judith Schwartz of To the Point

Judith is President of To the Point and serves as a Director on the ADS Board

How long have you been involved in the DR and smart grid space?
I started learning about DR and Smart Grid in 2008 when To the Point was asked by Trilliant to tell the story of the Smart Meter installation at Hydro One. We went up to Toronto and made a series of videos where we interviewed consumers, dug into the vision and potential for the utility, and then we continued with related projects for Capgemini and National Grid.

You’ve only been involved in the electricity industry for the last few years, what was your background before that?
I spent many years in high tech, joining Apple Computer in 1982, and starting my own systems and marketing consulting firm in 1987. I was also President of Polar Spring Corporation. We were developing a novel technology for water purification but were too far ahead of the market. My roles involved anticipating trends and market needs and creating integrated marketing campaigns for innovative and disruptive technologies at their introduction, such as personal computers, the Internet, handheld devices, and social media. It seemed to me that Smart Grid represented a similar paradigm shift, and I like the challenge of explaining the complexity in a way that is personally meaningful to non-experts.

How did you end up transitioning to energy-related work?
I had started looking at sustainability in general, and was moved by the potential for businesses to make positive contributions to the planet by changing operations and creating innovative products and services. When I saw there was a gap between the promise of the technology and understanding the consumer perspective, I felt like this was a meaningful opportunity for which I had been training for my entire career.

What were the biggest surprises you found in the utility and electricity sector?
First, I was struck by how the people who work in the industry are genuinely kind and interested in serving the public. The average consumer doesn’t realize that. And I was surprised that the techniques we used routinely in the tech sector to listen to the customer and craft outbound communication channels were not being applied. I could see how we could apply these here. Early on, I saw patterns emerging from the interviews we conducted for the videos, which became the basis for the ‘Energy Worldviews’ that I talk about in my writings, presentations, and research. It was great to see how study after study by different research teams reinforced and validated what was observable.
What do you think are lessons learned from your previous sectors that aren’t being applied to energy yet?
How to anticipate products people will want. One can’t use historical data as a predictive tool where innovative products are concerned - leaps of intuition and imagination are important ingredients. We’ve conducted many pilots that show clear trends and opportunities. Sometimes you have to draw conclusions from incomplete analysis and move ahead to prototype and refine. 

Techniques for applying segmentation. The industry has confirmed repeatedly that there are a half dozen categories where residential consumers self-identify. By providing the right options, information pathways, and advice they will self select appropriate programs. This can greatly increase success rates compared to the random assignment method used in pilots, where the statistics can obscure the insights.

What challenges have you faced as a DR professional within the industry?
As a consultant, I have found that utilities aren’t used to dealing with virtual teams of independent expert practitioners, unlike in tech, where the ‘Hollywood model’ is very common - that is assembling the best available talent for a given project. Although the utilities recognize the need for innovation and insight, the bid processes seem to be oriented toward traditional and large vendors.

What changes have you seen in the industry as it relates to DR and EE over the last few years?
What I think is really exciting is initially there was a lot of resistance to the idea of smart grid and getting consumers involved in energy beyond changing light bulbs. When I first talked about customer segmentation and engagement, it was unusual, and now we hear about those issues all the time. We are now on a trajectory that this is all going to happen and it’s just a matter of when. And I think that DR and EE will be integrated because it’s all electricity to the customer, and there is a recognition that silos are not relevant to the customer.

What do you expect to be the biggest challenge with implementing DR in the next decade?
Getting funding for education and outreach is still a huge problem. People are very receptive when you explain the issues and ask them to defer their use. But the trick is getting the funding for education so the communities will be supportive. And this comes back to Energy Worldviews – everyone likes to save money, but economic incentives or disincentives are not the most powerful motivators for everyone.

What advice or guidance would you give to young professionals who are considering a career in DR and smart grid?
Find a job within a utility to learn about the fundamentals and build your credibility and network, or go to work for one of the established players who share your focus. Being an entrepreneur in this space is very difficult - even if you come up with a great mobile app, getting utilities to adopt your platform will be a tough sell.

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