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In the Loop

WG C1.41, “Closing the gap in understanding between stakeholders and electrical energy specialists”

Working Group (WG) C1.41 was tasked with identifying means to bridge the gap in mutual understanding amongst the technical specialists and the various stakeholders that have a vested interest in the electricity product.  The evolution of the power system is leading to variations in costs and potentially significant changes in jurisdictional policy and energy strategy, which impact not only the customers but also the broader industry environment and economy.  The number and diversity of stakeholders now actively involved in these issues is escalating rapidly.  The WG has produced Technical Brochure (TB) 882.  The TB will be useful for both technical and non-technical stakeholders to improve their mutual understanding. The WG Chair and Secretary were Australian members Phil Southwell and Terry Killen. WG members have both technical and non-technical backgrounds with the latter having a speciality in communication and/or stakeholder engagement.

Global climate change initiatives have driven a substantial increase in renewable electricity generation, both large scale and in a distributed form.  In addition, many more customers are engaged in energy efficiency and Demand-Side Management programs to save money or reduce CO2 emissions. Their requirements for electricity supply are therefore changing.  However, the level of understanding of the mismatch between generated energy and the diverse load profiles and the consequent need for storage or other generation support, sometimes from remote sources, is limited.  In addition, the new power system dynamic is creating operational challenges. Where these operational events lead to significant and sustained loss of supply, there is a tendency for some stakeholders to jump to conclusions as to whether the problem is caused by the introduction of renewables, an unforeseen contingency or a more traditional severe weather event.

The number of customer-side technologies is increasing at a rapid rate, and so too are the customer’s opportunities to engage with their energy usage in very different ways.  As a result, customers and stakeholders have shown both a growing awareness of, and concern for, the types of decisions being made regarding energy supply and delivery.  It has also become clear that the range of new entrants in the market often bring perspectives and motivations that are new or different to what utility professionals have experienced in the past.

Aspects covered in the Technical Brochure

The WG recognised that readers of the TB may come from diverse backgrounds with varying levels of technical expertise and experience with stakeholder engagement.  The structure of the brochure has therefore been designed to guide the reader to their particular areas of interest.  Drawing on the experience of WG members and twenty detailed case studies, the WG identified several tools that have been used to reduce the gap in understanding amongst the stakeholders.  In addition, a wide range of simple models and analogies are documented that may help explain the various technical aspects associated with the industry.

There was a perspective, shared by many on the WG, that the gap in understanding was because of the inability on the part of the stakeholders to understand the message that was being communicated, due to the complex nature of the topics in question.  The WG recognized this phenomenon and identified several analogies, examples, and suggestions for effectively communicating highly technical topics to lay/non-technical stakeholders.

It is important to note that the WG was not trying to define a "good stakeholder engagement process".  Instead, the goal was to make concrete progress towards improving mutual understanding, for both in sector specialists' understanding of what stakeholders want from them and stakeholder understanding of the key issues.

The TB also identifies strategies used effectively by utilities in engaging with and listening to their stakeholders, even under extremely difficult situations, and even in relationships that have historically been hostile.

The case studies and communication aids should serve readers well, as they consider how best to work with stakeholders to improve the level of mutual understanding.

The technical brochure  is available on e-cigre and is free for members and 180€ for non-members.