Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Selling Environmentalism to the consumer

Integral Energy

When two Australian electricity distributors merged to create Integral Energy, the fledgling company shifted its corporate philosophy from energy provider to lifestyle supplier – and set about cultivating energy conscious customers in preference to expanding resources.

Integral’s corporate clients readily accepted the transition to more efficient energy use because of the direct impact on operational costs. The tough call was selling the change to the domestic customer – who sometimes viewed reducing energy consumption as a threat to living standards.

Securing customer loyalty was crucial to the company’s success because the domestic market would soon become fully contestable. Integral took its message to the streets through public forums and school talks, with disappointing results – they were either preaching environmentalism to the converted or babysitting bored kids in classrooms.

John Ross, Integral’s Energy Conservation Officer, decided the simplest way to encourage changes in domestic use was to broadcast a weekly energy efficiency program direct into the customers’ homes through community radio stations. The move hit the mark – a commercial radio network has now invited Ross to expand his program into mass market talk-back. “Customers can ring us on air and complain that their bill is too big. It’s a great opportunity to explain the difference better energy use can make,” Ross says.

The next step was to transform the bill payment centre into an Energy Conservation Office promoting energy efficient products, Energy Smart architecture, free home energy audits, and advice on retrofitting.

Integral then launched its Green Power program – a State sponsored scheme which allows customers to pay a higher tariff to elect renewable energy sources. Solar panels to supply the scheme were installed in schools and neighbourhood halls where customers could see how their money was being used. The benefit was a far higher participation ratio than any other distributors achieved under Green Power.

The company reinforced its community orientation through Intelife – an environmental technology display centre – by supplying the solar technology to power the whole site, including an industrial workshop, 5 bedroom house, and an eco-display centre.

The increase in customer awareness of renewables rekindled public interest in Integral’s schools program – which is now achieving 100 per cent saturation. The program has been expanded to allow children to conduct energy audits on school campuses.

All the issues for Integral’s new strategy went hand in glove. “The message is simple. “We’re the customer’s friend in the factory – and the order we want is the customer’s turn around of supply. When that happens, the ecological footprint is reduced, we avoid having to install a new fuel station, and we reduce CO2 emissions,” Ross says.

Community Services Manager John Moffat adds that the company needed to get tough on the customer to get results. “We needed to communicate that you have to do something to gain something. Even low income earners can save $US75 on their next bill just by spending $US7.50 on a hidden pelmet.”
Customers have begun calling into the Integral office to thank Ross for his suggestions. Integral has turned community antagonism and an unwelcome change into a positive PR exercise. But the measures Integral have introduced to date are just the start. “We know it’s cheaper to install efficient hot water systems in everyone’s house than build a new sub-station. We’d like to be selling the hot water – not the electricity – in other words selling the sizzle, not the sausage.”

Integral’s next challenge lies in maturing from regional to national player, in a buoyant market where prices have in the past escalated from $US45 MW to $US7,500 MW in just half an hour. The transition will be a tough ride – but Integral’s skill in thinking on its feet stand the company in good stead for the challenge.

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