Will Utilities Roar Again in the ‘20s?
Customer engagement insights from the era when the electric utility industry was considered “high tech” apply now more than ever before
In just 16 months, a full century will stand between us and the start of the decade known as “The Roaring Twenties.”
There is a youthful enthusiasm to be seen in electric utility industry trade press articles from the 1920s, whether the articles were written from the perspective of electric utility executives, engineers, or meter readers.
Beyond the enthusiasm of our industry’s “growth spurt” era, there are lessons to be learned today based on the high level of marketing savvy the electric utility industry had back then.
In terms of customer engagement, utilities in the 1920s were instrumental in getting end-use customers to see the economic value and personal benefits of using new electric appliances.
In addition, utilities also worked with manufacturers to ensure they could be relied on to meet schedules for delivery of new appliances and that these appliances were designed to be reliable and easy to service, thus setting a strong foundation for ever-increasing demand for electric service.
PUHCA as the Dark Ages?
Fundamentally, enactment of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA) coincided with the beginning of a long, drawn-out end of the era when electric utilities were leaders in “high tech” and had a culture (and influx of capital investments) envied by other industries.
While the main thrust of PUHCA was a bolstering of regulations in reaction to the stock market crash of 1929, with a cleanup of questionable business practices in relation to interstate utility corporate ownership and financial reporting, PUHCA also restricted how utilities could market to their customers. It put a stop to investor-owned utilities’ efforts to sell “behind the meter” products and services to customers.
Despite the period of sound financial growth and transparency for electric utilities after PUHCA, one may well say PUHCA ushered in the “Dark Ages” for electric utility customer engagement efforts because PUHCA closed direct utility involvement in a big portion of the type of customer engagement and marketing efforts that had been critical to healthy growth in the uptake of electrical appliances, electric heating, and electric lighting.
For the rest of the 20th century, after the enactment of PUHCA in1935, utilities were generally prohibited from engaging with customers for any behind-the-meter products and services.
A Pre-PUHCA Teachable Moment
Consider a true personal story. It is a story I heard in the early 1990s from a distribution engineer at Central Maine Power who was nearing retirement age:
“My mother told me about how she and Dad bought our first washing machine. The meter reader came by on his usual day of the month to read our home’s electric meter. He told my mother that her hands sure looked worn out from the washboard she had been using. The meter reader then suggested to my mother that she buy an electric washing machine on a Central Maine Power layaway plan.”