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Mobile traffic to electric company websites shot up 16,000 percent in the days after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the US late last year. Millions of people without power turned to their mobiles to get information about outages and when electricity would be restored.

The numbers come from Usablenet, a mobile platform that manages websites for Con Edison (which serves New York City and parts of Connecticut) and
Connecticut Light & Power. 16,000 percent is a dramatic proof point for utilities at a time when many are exploring ways to put mobile to work. That’s thousands, maybe millions, of people who got the information they needed without having to talk to a “costly” customer service rep. Think of it that way, and the mobile website or app investment is money well spent.

Today, field service and asset management are generally where mobile makes its debut in utility companies (as we have seen with our product Syclo), as technicians use devices to communicate, access information and collect data in the field. However, now end customers are becoming the focus. Innovative utilities are building mobile apps that serve them, providing information on outages, as we saw with Hurricane Sandy, and also allowing consumers to report problems, manage their accounts, and make payments.

Southern California Edison in the US has a great mobile app called SCE Outages. It lets customers report burnt-out streetlamps and problems with their power. It also has an interactive map of all the current outages. A click on an individual outage tells you when it was reported, whether or not it’s planned, and when it’ll likely be fixed. MLGW (Memphis Light, Gas and Water, Tennessee, US) and FirstEnergy (Eastern US) also offer feature-rich apps with outage maps and info, bill pay options and energy-saving tips.

This consumer focus is not just directed in the US. When I was in the UK recently, I saw British Gas advertisements on primetime TV telling customers,
“Save time and hassle with our mobile App. It’s simple to submit your meter readings, view your balance, track your energy usage, book an engineer visit
and track the status of your appointment. It even comes with a handy torch to help you read the meter”. The app also now has payment as well.

One of the most compelling reasons for utilities to build their own consumer apps is what the industry is calling “demand response.” When consumers
see how much of whatever resource they’re using (water, electricity, gas), and how much it costs, they can trace the expense back to behaviours, and understand how to impact the numbers.

For example, if your utility app shows you in real-time just how much using your electric dryer on laundry day bumps up the monthly bill, you might
invest in a clothesline. When you see that electricity costs more at certain times of the day, you’re more likely to charge your phone and bake your bread
during off hours. (Of course, all this real-time information also requires on-site smart meters, which many utilities are in the process of installing throughout
their service areas.)

The more consumers understand about when and how much energy and water they use, the more likely they’ll use less. That’s better for utilities,
because using less energy use means there are fewer outages and a reduced load on the network. It’s better for consumers, who benefit from lower bills. And, it’s better for the planet.

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