From the airline industry to healthcare, Hanna Balla has seen it all. Currently the Director of Customer Experience & Insights for NiSource, Balla looks to her past industries with gratitude for helping her get to where she is today.

Working with utility digital experiences, Balla has seen the energy industry go through a major transformation. Long gone are the days of “ratepayers,” making way for opportunities to engage and listen to customers. Her passion for the environment ties in perfectly with the growing role that utilities play in energy efficiency and sustainability. “The industry is fun to be in right now,” she notes.

Headshot of energy utility customer experience leader Hanna Balla

Balla grew up in New York but has lived in Columbus, Ohio, since college. Beyond her work with NiSource, Balla loves hiking, surfing and traveling. Although international travel had to be put on hold due to COVID-19, Balla said that the remote year actually helped her team, which is scattered throughout the Midwest, become more efficient, effective and closer. “In the past, Columbus colleagues would meet in the office,” she said. “With everyone now over Zoom, the opportunities to engage as a full team have been equalized.”

Balla is also a strong advocate for minorities in the energy industry. “I’m Korean-American and I don’t see a lot of Asian-Americans in the energy industry, at least from where I sit. Since I don’t see it, I’ve become an advocate for minorities in energy and leadership in general. It’s been really fun to be a part of that and to pave a path for others.”

Focusing on customer experience is also important to her work. “The voice of the customer has gotten louder and we’re responding to it,” Balla said. “Previously, old systems and processes hadn’t been touched, but now we’re focused on making things easier for customers and catching up to their expectations. There is a lot of energy and acceleration to help customers do more online than they could before.

“Things are changing, and utilities are excited to get fun and creative now,” she added. “The moment we look at things as a customer, the narrative changes.”

Questline Digital spoke with Balla to get her thoughts on changes in the utility industry, thought-provoking marketing campaigns and the evolution of energy.

How did you get started in the energy utility industry?

It was actually by accident! I had a couple of good friends/former colleagues in the healthcare industry who were working for NiSource. At the time the company was hiring a marketing manager for one of its states, Columbia Gas of Ohio. Given my experience, my former colleagues reached out about the opportunity.

I didn’t have any sort of background in the energy industry. Most of my experience was in the airline, healthcare, retail and QSR (quick-service restaurant) industries, but a lot of those skills were transferrable to the role at Columbia Gas of Ohio. I applied — and I’ve been on the energy industry learning curve ever since. 

What has changed the most about working in the utility industry over the course of your career?

I’ve actually held four roles in the five years I’ve been with the company. I started in energy efficiency marketing for Columbia Gas of Ohio and now I’m leading customer experience and insights across the enterprise (six operating companies). It’s been exciting because things have constantly been in flux. The energy industry has seen a major shift in customer-focused modernization and transformation in the last few years. Sitting on the customer-focused side, that’s the biggest shift I’ve seen. 

What excites you the most about the energy utility space? 

The opportunity. We’re in an industry that experiences a lot of change and innovation, from digital transformation to a focus on renewable energy, and we’re giving our customers more control, transparency, and options. The industry is ripe for change, and the pace of the change has been rapid, which has been very exciting. 

Tell me about the campaign or initiative you’re most proud of.

When I first joined Columbia Gas of Ohio, we did a full marketing audit and a rebrand to ensure that our messaging was consistent and impactful. Also to ensure it resonated with our customers in order to improve awareness, recall, and action for energy efficiency programs and initiatives. It was exciting to see the impact that strategic marketing can have on not only customer awareness and participation of our programs, but the positive impact those actions were having in communities and on our environment. 

What is the hardest part of an energy marketer’s job today?

I think it’s keeping things simple. Our industry is large and complex, but at the end of the day, our customers care about having reliable service and interactions being simple. One of our challenges is making sure we constantly see and solve for things through the customer’s lens — not our own as people who are close to the industry. 

How do you anticipate the world of energy evolving in the coming years? What are you looking forward to?

We often say that our customers don’t have a choice to be our customers, and though that may not change in the near future, I do think that how they get energy from us will change and the options they have for energy sources will grow. With that, customer choice becomes greater and being able to meet customer needs and keep things radically simple and transparent will become more and more important. I think the opportunities with renewable energy is incredibly exciting!

What advice would you give to those entering the utility space? 

Stay curious. This is a large, complex industry with a lot of moving pieces and parts, and a lot of history with dependencies in many areas. In order to do good work, it’s critical to understand the industry itself and all the levers that influence the work we do. That means there’s a lot to learn, there are a lot of existing systems in place, and sometimes, it takes some creative problem solving to get things done.

Five years in, I feel like I just scratched the surface. I think it’s a balance of understanding the industry and also bringing fresh ideas to the table to really make an impact for our customers.

Participation in Questline Digital’s Energy Spotlight series does not indicate an endorsement from utility partners.

Ensuring the reliability of your customers’ energy supply is one of the most important jobs for any utility — yet it’s often taken for granted by customers. By participating in commercial demand response programs, business customers will better understand the role they have to play and directly contribute to making the electric grid more stable.

How do energy utilities encourage business customers to participate in demand response? By sharing the benefits of these programs, addressing common objections and offering energy-saving education, utilities can enlist the participation of more businesses and ensure the success of demand response programs.

What Is Demand Response?

Demand response is an effort to manage the capacity of the electric grid during peak events, or times of extremely high power draw. If businesses and households demand more electricity than can be produced — say, during a hot August afternoon when the air conditioning is running full blast — it may lead to outages. Producing more electricity by constructing new power plants can be costly and take years of planning. Plus, it often it means adding more fossil fuel generation to the grid instead of renewable sources.

Demand response programs seek to minimize the impact of peak events and prevent the need for building more power plants. Commercial demand response programs pay business customers to reduce their power draw during peak events, ensuring the stability of the grid for other customers and ultimately reducing the cost of energy for everyone.

How Does Demand Response Impact Commercial and Industrial Customers?

Customers can look at demand response events in two ways: the (potentially temporary) inconvenience of participating and the (potentially detrimental) drawbacks of not participating.

Commercial and industrial customers who participate in demand response programs may be asked to reduce their power draw during peak events. This can lead to minor inconveniences like reducing HVAC use or major impacts like closing the business for part of the day. On the positive side, program participants receive financial incentives that may include cash payments or reduced rates — even if a response event is not needed. The amount of advanced notice varies by program.

Businesses that don’t participate would not receive these incentives, of course, but they still might suffer the negative effects. An unexpected outage during peak events could cause devastating business interruptions. Long term, without effective demand response programs, a utility might have to add more carbon-based generation to the grid and rely less on renewable sources — increasing the cost of energy for everyone.

How to Promote Demand Response Program Benefits

The importance of demand response programs to your utility is clear: Managing the load during peak events is critical to ensure the reliability and stability of the grid. But why are these programs important to businesses? When promoting demand response, the key is to focus on the benefits to your customers, not the benefits to your utility.

Commercial demand response programs benefit your customers in three significant ways:

  1. Financial incentives. Businesses get paid to participate in demand response programs and can benefit from upfront payments, rebates and/or lower energy rates.
  2. Operational planning. Program participants can prepare for demand response events and ensure smooth transitions. It’s much better than being caught off guard by unexpected outages.
  3. Green reputation. Businesses are partners with the utility in ensuring a cleaner and more stable energy supply for their community — which both employees and consumers appreciate.

Overcoming Common Hurdles to Demand Response Program Adoption

Despite these benefits, commercial and industrial customers may be wary of demand response programs. After all, reducing power draw could be a significant interruption to business operations. It’s important for energy utility marketers to acknowledge these objections and clearly address customers’ concerns.

Make it easy to participate. The thought of interrupting business operations or reducing power draw at a busy commercial facility may be overwhelming. Help customers participate, and demonstrate how easy it is, with clear guidelines and processes for demand response events.

Share testimonials. Who knows the benefits of demand response programs better than current participants? Look for success stories among your customers and capture video testimonials to share with businesses that are considering the program. Spoken in their own words, such videos are authentic and relatable to other business customers.

Segment messages by new/returning customers. If you require past participants to sign up for your demand response program each year, it’s important to remind them of the benefits even though they may already understand the program. New prospects, on the other hand, will require a more detailed explanation and may need repeated outreach.

Segment messages by industry. Reducing power draw during a demand response event will affect a healthcare facility much differently than, say, a factory or warehouse. It’s important to address each industry’s specific concerns with a segmented communication strategy and offer relevant participation advice for each type of facility.

Examples of Effective Commercial Demand Response Promotions

Commercial demand response programs may seem complex or intimidating to potential participants. It’s not enough to simply market the benefits of these programs with a typical campaign. Demand response promotions need to include a healthy dose of education to fully explain how the program works, the benefits of participation, and advice about compliance, including industry-specific efficiency information.

Questline Digital produced a comprehensive campaign for a major IOU in the Midwest to promote its demand response program. The campaign was a success, exceeding the utility’s participation goals and reaching customers in multiple channels with a variety of content formats:

  • Website landing page with full program details and benefits
  • Video testimonials from current participants
  • Infographic with energy-saving advice
  • Email campaigns to past participants and prospective new participants, including behavioral follow-up messages to both audiences
Example of email promotion for commercial demand response program
Example of email promotion for commercial demand response program

Business customers have an important role to play in maintaining the reliability of the electric grid. In addition to financial benefits, demand response participants can be proud of partnering with their utility to ensure a cleaner and more stable energy supply for the entire community.

Learn how to promote the benefits of your demand response program with a digital engagement strategy from Questline Digital.

The advent of beneficial electrification has put natural gas suppliers on their heels. The electric utility industry is touting the trend of reduced CO2 emissions per MWh from electric power generation over the last decade. Plus, the electric industry is promoting the lack of site emissions from wind and solar power and raising questions over natural gas leaks in the pipeline infrastructure. How should suppliers respond to customer concerns about the environmental impact from natural gas consumption?

Carbon Impact: Source Emissions vs. Site Emissions

To begin the conversation about environmental impacts, the case first needs to be made based on a level playing field. This means comparing emissions from source energy, not site energy.

To supply an electron of electricity to our homes or businesses, a coal-fired power plant has to mine and burn coal, produce steam, turn a generator and then deliver the electricity over a relatively long distance through a transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure. Similarly, shale gas for a gas-fired turbine generator must be extracted from the ground by a drilling or fracking process, transported to the power plant, and combusted in the turbine to produce electricity. This electricity must also be delivered through T&D infrastructure to homes and businesses.

Carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, is often associated with global warming. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only 30% of CO2 emissions in the U.S. came from the production of electric power in 2019 compared to 35% from transportation. But let’s compare electric power generation emissions from coal plants versus combined cycle natural gas-fired turbine generators (CCGT) on a source CO2 equivalent (CO2e) basis.

The CCGT generates electricity directly from the turbine and subsequently from the turbine exhaust, which is used to make steam that powers a steam turbine generator. To properly compare, we will need to account for upstream CO2 and methane emissions from mining, drilling and processing as well as natural gas leaks and emissions from the combustion processes. With that said, a recent study by Stanford University estimated that CO2e emissions from a coal plant are twice that of a CCGT gas-fired plant for the same output (g/kWh) over a 20-year lifecycle. Reduced CO2 emissions per MWh from overall electric power generation is primarily due to natural gas replacing coal.

In addition, coal-fired plants (19% of all sources, the same as renewables) emit much more nitrous oxides (NOx) compared to gas-fired plants and copious amounts of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM) as well. NOx is nearly 300 times more powerful than CO2 and 12 times more powerful than methane at trapping heat in the atmosphere. SO2 is a toxic irritant to our lungs and forms acid rain. PM also causes respiratory problems.

The same EPA data also shows that total methane (CH4) emissions from enteric fermentation (cow digestive systems) is greater than either natural gas systems or landfills. Although methane emissions have 25 times the effect on global warming as CO2, they represent only 10% of total source greenhouse emissions (CO2, methane, N2O, HFCs, PFCs and SF6), compared to 80% for CO2.

What Customers Should Know About Beneficial Gasification

Because natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, it’s an ideal complement to solar and wind for power generation. As evidenced by the recent power crisis in Texas, low-cost gas-fired power generation is needed to compensate for the intermittent operation of renewables. In addition, both biogas derived from organic materials and renewable natural gas (RNG) are environmentally friendly renewable fuels used to generate electric power.

While renewable energy sources like solar and wind have no site emissions, they do have positive carbon intensity (CI) profiles over their lifecycles due to emissions during manufacturing. According to Stifel Equity Research, RNG using animal waste has a large negative CI lifecycle.

Clearly, the use of natural gas in its various forms can have important environmental benefits compared to the alternatives. Educating your energy utility’s customers about the relative impact of natural gas consumption on the environment compared to other fossil fuels and renewable energy can help them better understand the benefits of natural gas.

Educate customers about the benefits of natural gas with a digital engagement strategy from Questline Digital.

Electricity is typically consumed as soon as it’s produced. Rechargeable batteries can store electricity at times when demand is low and power generation is high. It sounds simple, but your residential customers need to be educated about how battery energy storage works, the difference between battery types and what it takes to integrate batteries with solar panels.

Alternating current (AC) from your energy utility is first rectified to direct current (DC) to charge storage batteries. Home batteries require an inverter that later converts the DC energy stored in the batteries into AC power for use in the home. Battery energy storage applications include increased solar PV self-consumption and time-of-use rate management. However, most homeowners buy energy storage for backup power.

The battery unit is usually installed near a customer’s main distribution panel and then rewired to a critical loads panel. This is expensive and complicated. For the critical loads panel, the homeowner specifies the rooms or appliances they want to have powered during an outage. Unfortunately, many battery systems alone cannot provide the startup current for even low horsepower motors like well pumps or small air conditioners. However, high-power inverters or add-on soft-start kits are available to make this possible at an extra expense.

Types of Batteries for Home Energy Storage

There are two major types of batteries used for residential energy storage.

1. Lead acid batteries

These batteries are made up of numerous lead plates separated by a porous insulator. This assembly is immersed in an electrolyte made from a sulfuric acid solution. They are designed for 77-degree F ambient temperatures, are three times larger for the same kWh rating as lithium-ion and only allow for 50% depth of discharge. They are very heavy and require close monitoring of the battery’s state of charge and fluid levels. More expensive valve regulated lead acid (VRLA) and absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries are sealed, requiring less maintenance.

2. Lithium-ion (Li-on) Batteries

A rechargeable lithium-ion battery uses a cathode made from a lithium oxide material (not metallic lithium). The highest power capacity li-ion systems (used by Tesla) incorporate a cathode combination of nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC). However, charging too fast can promote thermal runaway due to the cobalt content and could potentially start a fire. Lithium iron phosphate batteries (used by Sonnen and others) are cobalt-free but provide much less energy storage capacity. Li-on batteries can be discharged to below 10% capacity, which essentially doubles the useful storage capacity compared to lead acid for the same capacity rating (kWh).

How Much Does a Home Energy Storage Battery Cost?

According to BloombergNEF, the cost to manufacture li-on battery packs has steadily dropped and is now around $137/kWh, less than half the cost in 2016. BNEF forecasts the li-on battery price to drop to $100/kWh in 2024 and $75/kWh by 2030. According to EnergySage, a 5 kW (13.5 kWh) battery storage system today will cost around $6,000 to $7,000 for batteries, plus $4,000 for other equipment and installation. Major home battery storage suppliers include Tesla, LG Chem, Sonnen, BYD, Enphase and Pika Energy/Generac.

What is the Capacity of a Home Energy Storage Battery?

The required battery size depends on the amount of power a home uses, the time periods it uses power and the peak electricity demand required to meet their maximum load. The average home consumes about 28 kWh daily. Going completely off-grid would require a large bank of batteries. Residential battery storage suppliers offer units with ratings of 3 to 8 kW of continuous power and 3 to 20 kWh of storage capacity.

Battery Storage for Home Solar Panels

Battery storage is a great option for homes with solar panel systems. There are two ways solar battery storage operates:

AC coupling feeds solar panel DC power to an inverter, which then supplies AC power to the home and (when needed) draws power from the grid. Battery backup is added on the grid side with its own inverter to store excess solar energy or to charge from the grid. Any electricity that is stored in the battery system needs to be inverted three separate times before use.

DC coupling feeds solar panel DC power to a charge controller, then to the batteries. A single inverter then converts the DC battery power to AC power for the home. Stored electricity is only inverted once before use. Note that DC coupling cannot be used with microinverters and cannot store power from the grid.

Hybrid systems combine both DC and AC coupling to take advantage of the benefits of both.

Are Permits Required for Home Batteries?

Some authorities may require re-permitting of the existing PV system if a new inverter is installed. Restrictions on permissible battery locations and clearances from existing equipment may also be enforced.

Recommendations for Energy Utilities

As customer interest continues to grow, how should energy utilities address energy storage batteries for homes?

  • Emphasize the non-backup power benefits of energy storage such as time-shifting or arbitraging their solar-generated energy.
  • Encourage customers not to piecemeal a system together. The battery subsystem, inverter and control software should be an integrated package.
  • Confirm ahead of time that every critical component in the battery system is acceptable for interconnection by your energy utility.
  • Make sure battery units are listed to UL 9540, the Standard for Safety of Energy Storage Systems and Equipment.
  • Check ahead with the city building department or other authorities to understand permitting requirements.
  • Make incentives easy to apply for and paid directly to the customer.
  • Verify that the scope and terms of the battery warranty meets your customers’ expectations.

Energy storage is on your customers’ radar. This resource can provide backup power, improve the grid’s efficiency, potentially lower energy costs for customers and play a key role in the smart grid of the future. Energy utilities need to make educating customers about energy storage a priority.

Need to educate customers about new energy technologies? Learn how to build engagement and keep them informed with a monthly eNewsletter.

U.S. wind power generation has tripled over the past decade — and continues to grow as renewable energy gains momentum.  However, the small wind market (<100 kW), dominated in the past by residential customers, has largely been supplanted by solar installations. By comparison, commercial and industrial companies have installed over 360 onsite wind turbines. Excluding independent power producers and municipals, the average installation size is roughly 800 kW ranging from 50 kW to 3 MW in size according to the United States Wind Turbine Database. Before investing in wind power, your utility’s commercial and industrial customers need to understand the keys to wind power success.

What is the energy output of wind power?

Power is proportional to the cube of wind speed. Increasing average wind speed from 14 to 16 mph increases power by 50%. Wind turbine installers generally recommend a minimum average wind speed of at least 12 miles per hour (Class 3 wind). Your customer’s wind resource can vary significantly over just a few miles, due to changes in local terrain. Direct customers to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) wind resource maps to estimate average wind speeds in their area or have them obtain wind speed data from a local airport or weather station.

Wind speed also increases as tower height increases. Wind speed at 164 feet is 25% higher than at 33 feet and doubles power output. Commercial-scale wind turbines are placed on towers that range from about 75 feet (25 meters) to as much as 325 feet (100 meters) tall.

Power is proportional to the square of the blade length. Increasing blade length from 6 feet to 12 feet increases power output four times. Combining larger blades with higher tower height maximizes output.

A wind turbine does not output at its maximum capacity all the time. Sometimes there is no wind at all. A capacity factor of around 25% is assumed for non-utility-scale turbines in the U.S.

Installation and maintenance of wind turbines

Before your customer invests in a small wind energy system, have them contact their local building inspector or zoning board to find out about any zoning or permitting issues. The board can tell them if they will need to obtain a building permit and provide them a list of requirements.

Wind power safety issues

In high wind conditions, the generator and gear box can run too fast and overheat. All wind turbines disengage the generator at some predetermined cutout wind speed (typically 55 mph). A wind turbine will also need lightning protection.

What’s the best wind turbine size?

The turbine size will depend on your customer’s energy use, the average wind speed at their site, the diameter at the blade tips and the height of the wind turbine, all of which will affect the amount of energy it generates. When wind turbine capacity is augmented by energy storage (during slow wind conditions), energy storage is sized to provide only about 14% of turbine full capacity.

Financial analysis and incentives for wind power

The Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2020 extended the deadline for wind projects started in either 2020 or 2021 to qualify for a Production Tax Credit (PTC) of $0.015/kWh on the electrical output for 10 years.Wind projects can receive the tax credit based on either the year the project begins operation or the year in which 5% of the total capital cost for the project has been spent and construction has begun. The credit is claimed by completing IRS Form 8835, “Renewable Electricity Production Credit.” The Investment Tax Credit (ITC), previously at 30%, is no longer available for on-shore wind projects.

Conducting a simple investment analysis for your customers can help them understand the financial obligations of wind power more clearly. For example, the assumptions and calculation below outlines how to estimate the total net cost and payback of an average-size onsite wind turbine.

Assumptions:

  • 800 kW capacity @$3,500/kW installed cost (<= 5 MW) per LBL
  • Operations and maintenance (O&M) costs of $30/kW-year
  • Commercial electricity rate = $0.11/kWh
  • Wind power Renewable Energy Credit (REC) prices vary from $1 to $10 per megawatt-hour (MWh) in most states
  • Annual electricity production = 800 kW x 0.25 capacity factor x 8,760 hrs/yr = 1,752,000 kWh

Calculation:

  • Initial investment = 800 kW x $3,500/kW = $2.8 million
  • PTC incentive = 1,752,000 kWh x $0.015/kWh x 10 years = $262,800
  • REC sales = 1,725 MWh/yr x $4/MWh x 20 years = $138,000
  • O&M cost = 800 kW x $30/kW x 20 years = $480,000
    • Initial investment – PTC incentive – REC sales + O&M = $2.88 million total cost
    • Annual electricity savings = 1,752,000 kWh x $0.11/kWh = $192,720 annual savings

With a total cost of $2.88 million and electricity savings of $192,720 per year, customers can expect simple payback in 15 years. That’s an internal rate of return of 3.1%, or a net present value of $36,956 (assuming a discount rate of 3%).

Is wind power right for your customers?

Being green is not inexpensive. Your customers can also experience pushback in the form of NIMBY or “not in my back yard.” But it is a great solution with respect to decarbonization of power generation. The wind “fuel” is free. Wind power requires much less land and is less expensive to install than solar. Help your customers understand the keys to wind power success.

Learn how a digital marketing strategy from Questline Digital can help your energy utility promote the benefits of wind power and renewable energy.