Kiss me!

Have you noticed that our world often seems glutted with new acronyms. Not good! Too many new, unfamiliar acronyms create what I call acronym anxiety. We fear that if we have to ask what those letters stand for, we may look stupid and out of touch. So we often don’t ask. We bluff and nod as if we are absolutely familiar with the acronym. Yeah, sure, we’ve “got it.” But we don’t, and we don’t like that.

Relax, because here is an old acronym. You’ve seen or heard it before. It is KISS. Ah, you remember that it stands for: “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” It reminds us that simple things are usually better and more useful than complex things. If we are designing products or programs, teaching or coaching, inspiring or leading, planning or projecting…we should keep it simple.

In the aftermath of the 1973 oil embargo there was a love affair with the notion that time-of-use metering would be a big part of the solution to our dependence on foreign oil. It went something like this: If we provide price signals to the consumer in the form of a tiered electric rate structure, the consumer will shift some of his or her consumption to off-peak periods. That off-peak energy is supplied by efficient base load generation using domestic fuels like coal.

These base load fuels contrast with the fuels required by ‘peakers’. These were more likely to be generators powered by diesel engines or aircraft-derivative gas turbines, in turn fueled by diesel or Jet A fuel. These were the politically sensitive lighter refined fractions of more costly imported fuel. It thus followed that time-of use pricing would reduce the North American perilous reliance on imported fuels.

Peak load pricing was urged further forward by the Public Utility Regulatory Practices Act (PURPA) in 1978, and an early landmark requirement was established by the Wisconsin PUC to compel Madison Gas and Electric to offer time-of-use rates. Did it work? We will come to that.

The 1973 oil embargo also produced the sentiment that natural gas was much too precious a fuel to be used in base load generating plants, and should be reserved for home heating, water heating and other higher uses where the alternatives were more limited. Looking back, history shows that these perspectives had their ‘day in the sun’, but have since been ignored. How times change! Natural gas is now often the fuel of choice for base load plants, driven by emissions considerations. And North American dependence on imported fuels is now far greater than in 1973.

By the early 1980s peak load pricing was a service option available from many utilities, which had created TOU pricing options at the urging of their regulatory commissions. But by the mid 1980s interest was already starting to wane. Why? In some cases poor rate designs were partially at fault. The savings over the flat rate simply didn’t provide enough cost saving (if any) to justify the complexity in a consumer’s life. There was a ‘wear-out’ response from customers once the novelty wore off.

Leap ahead twenty years. We’ve come through a badly flawed attempt at electricity utility industry restructuring. The related confusion has vastly complicated decisions about metering and AMR. In some states and provinces there is a recurrence of interest in time-of-use or peak-sensitive rates. OK, but have we really learned from history that consumers are looking for ways to simplify their lives, not make them more complex? Have we learned that residential customers resent the clock blinking 12:00 on their VCRs? Have we learned that after just one year 65% of consumers give up on their programmable ‘smart’ thermostats, and use them instead as just a simple up-down thermostat, forsaking the complexity of programming?

Have we learned that having to use four or five separate remotes to watch TV isn’t what we’d expected when we were told that one remote would control everything? Have we given up recycling because of the complexity of separating and transporting clear glass, brown glass, green glass, three types of plastic, coated and uncoated paper, ferrous and non-ferrous metals? Does your newest car have an actual knob that turns for volume control, instead of those volume up/volume down buttons that you can’t find when you’re driving? If it does, someone learned that simplicity trumps complexity, digital or not. And…can we understand our utility bills?

We yearn for things that are intuitive, obvious. We want technology that simplifies our life, not complicates it. Rational innovative peak sensitive energy prices will be what some people want. Many, many others will want energy pricing that doesn’t force them to be clock watchers, even if they have to pay a bit more for that simplicity.

As an industry we must beware of technology for its own sake. We must steer clear of technology applications where we could, so we did – and for no other reason. Witness the landscape littered with failed residential gateway companies that sought to do AMR plus_______ and _______ (you fill in the blanks) simply because they could.

Bringing simplicity to consumers’ lives holds vastly more promise than adding complexity! Are we condemned to re-learn the lessons of the past? Maybe so. But there is another lesson with more history and more relevance. Even the lesson itself is simple. It is KISS!

Keep it simple, stupid!

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This column is to create a forum for ideas, passions and perspectives on our industry that are controversial, provocative and energising. The views expressed here may be unpopular, politically incorrect, heretical or simply humorous. The views expressed may be ideas that all of us have had but didn’t care (or dare) to articulate. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone, but are probably shared by many who have yet to say so.