Getting customers to accept the new 'smart-grid' technology, designed to conserve energy and cut electricity bills, may not be an easy task.
The reviews were mixed at State Grid Corp of China's smart grid demonstration pavilion at the Shanghai Expo.
'The exhibition is too technical,' Wang Lingmei, a middle-aged Shanghainese housewife, said. 'It's very difficult for us non-industry people to understand. I can only stroll past the exhibitions and have a look without getting too much out of it.'
The displays included a 'smart' power sub-station that monitors power distribution at the expo site; large-capacity power storage batteries; smart power meters; mock electric vehicle recharging stations; and a model of the long-distance ultra-high voltage power lines being laid to link the energy-rich western and northern regions to the major consumption centres in the coastal regions.
Wang did not recall the demonstration of the electronic in-home energy consumption display, which links all home electrical appliances and fittings. It's the device that has the most immediate relevance for the general public. It is an essential tool to help consumers alter their electricity consumptions pattern to conserve energy and lower their bills.
Zhou Xunbing, a Shanghai teacher, didn't remember the display either, nor did a Jiangsu native who works at a factory in Suzhou and would only give her name as Li.
The reception to other promises of the smart grid has not been much better. The reaction has been decidedly mixed at the current two-tiered power tariff system in Shanghai and neighbouring regions, a precursor to the eventual introduction of market power prices.
Under the system, non-peak period prices (10pm to 6am) are roughly half those in the peak period (6am to 10pm). But despite the big saving, not everyone is keen on switching their behaviour, especially those who can afford not to.
'I don't take advantage of that because it disrupts my normal living habits,' Wang said. 'I think the savings are not worth it if I have to deliberately change my habits in order to cut my electricity bill. If I do my laundry after 10pm, the noise of the washing machine would be a nuisance to my family and neighbours.'
Zhou said that since his monthly electricity bill of about 150 yuan (HK$172) was not a significant portion of his monthly household spending, he did not pay attention to controlling usage to achieve savings.
But Li, the migrant factory worker, said she tried to save as much money as possible. She said she would only boil water and do her laundry after 10pm. Still, she said, she probably would not find it enticing to keep track of her own consumption patterns. Reluctance to embrace change is not unique to mainlanders.
In the United States, some customers thought the in-home consumption pattern displays had too many complicated graphs and too much information, said Mark Wyatt, Duke Energy's vice-president of smart grid and energy systems.
He said many customers stopped looking at the device after two weeks of monitoring. 'They want the interactive function but don't want to interact with it on a regular basis,' he said. 'Not everybody is tech-savvy.'
Wyatt said the costs to install the hardware and software for each household to get them smart grid-enabled, ran to US$1,000 to US$3,000. So, significant savings are required to justify the investment.
Doug Aberie, managing director of the West Australia utility Western Power, said some customers would rather let the company control their energy efficiency improvement - such as air-conditioning controls - than study data and graphs and adjust their consumption behaviour themselves.
'If we are not careful in rolling out, the huge investment may not produce the desired economic benefits,' he said.
To thrive in the new industry landscape, utilities find that fostering closer relationships with customers and educating them are important.
Aberie said utilities needed to scrap their 'linear mindset' of building power plants and grids. Instead they needed to get connected with their consumers for a 'more interactive approach' in which they exercised less control and become more attentive to customer needs.
To achieve this, utilities needed to look beyond their traditional pool of talent.
'On electricity storage, we will need chemical engineers, mechanical engineers and on data security we require information technology people,' said John Cheng, manager of low carbon technology research and development for Hong Kong electricity producer CLP Holdings. 'I am not sure [our industry] has the expertise.'
Cheng Chin-pang, asset development manager for CLP Power Hong Kong, said the company was doing tests this year and next on advanced digital electricity meters, electric vehicles recharging stations and home display units that allow customers to read their power consumption patterns periodically.
It plans to expand the pilots to about 5,000 flats in high-rise buildings in 2012.
'We hope to be ready to formulate our overall [smart grid] development strategy by the end of 2012,' he said.
The company has sent just more than half a dozen executives to a smart grid conference in Shanghai to learn the latest developments, including two people responsible for public relations, a reflection of the importance of customer involvement. This is particularly important in places, including the mainland, where power distribution is a monopoly and where customer interaction is minimal.
Wang said State Grid's public relations work was not up to standard, saying it did a poor job at the expo in relating the smart grid concept to consumers' day-to-day living.
'You see the Cisco pavilion next door,' she said.
'The video presentation tells you in the year 2020 what sort of changes and added convenience network technology could bring to our lives. It's much more vivid.'
While it may take time to improve a utility's soft skills in marketing and public relations, there is one thing that can probably be done easily to improve customer relations.
Li suggested that State Grid provide a break-down for peak and non-peak hours in the monthly bills. That way she can know how much she has actually saved by washing her clothes and boiling water late at night.