Challenges and Innovations: Current and Future States of Water Affordability: Part 3

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Guest Post By Stacey Isaac Berahzer, Christine Boyle, PhD, and Maryana Pinchuk

Note: This is the third in a series of Valor Water Analytics blog posts exploring water affordability, customer nonpayment, and technology that can enable utilities to deliver water more equitably and sustainably to all customers.  It was originally posted to  Valor Water Analytics on June 6, 2019.

Where We Can Go Tomorrow: Exploring Novel Interventions for Nonpayment Reduction

In our two previous blog posts in this series, we explored the definitions and metrics used to assess affordability, discussed the role of customer assistance programs (CAPs) in addressing affordability, and considered some major challenges that utilities face when setting up CAPs. In this post, we will briefly discuss rate structures and policy changes that influence affordability, as well as cover additional novel interventions that may reduce utility customer nonpayment in the water sector and related sectors.

Rates and Policies Shape Affordability

As a recent study on affordability in New Jersey points out, before even considering a CAP, it is important for a utility to examine how its basic rate structure affects low-income customers’ bills. The study points out that “rate structures that rely heavily on fixed charges, as opposed to volumetric charges, will tend to disadvantage low-income customers, as they tend to use less water than higher-income customers.” This lower volume of use also makes declining block rate structure less equitable for low-income customers. The study concludes that “reforming a utility’s basic rate structure can go a long way to reducing burdens on low-income customers, reducing the need for additional, income-based assistance.”

Policy changes also have the potential to make a big difference. At the state level, New Jersey is being encouraged to adopt language for water similar to the 1999 state law known as the Electric Discount and Energy Competition Act.  That act declared that it was the policy of the state to ensure “universal access to affordable and reliable electric power and natural gas service.”

If such legislative changes were to occur, water affordability would jump to an even higher priority for utilities, and we could see a lot more activity in this area. Among other things, utilities could be mandated to “report on key metrics related to rates, customer bills, and low-income affordability.” However, as we previously discussed, many utilities currently lack the underlying data to track these metrics.

Customer Communication to Drive Behavioral Change

While there have been discussions on using CAPs, rate structures, and policy to influence customer nonpayment, an area yet to be explored in depth is how changes to customer communication might increase the willingness of some customers to pay. From conversations with multiple utilities about affordability and nonpayment, it is clear that customers have different reasons for not paying their utility bills. While some do lack the financial means to afford their bills, nonpayment can also result from sticker shock, knowledge gaps, and other factors that impact the customer’s decision to pay. These factors may seem daunting to understand and address, but some tools and techniques may offer a path forward for utilities interested in changing customer nonpayment behavior.

Behavioral nudges are lightweight, targeted interventions that aim to implicitly and positively influence consumer behavior. There are many examples of nudges that have proved successful in influencing consumer behavior in the realm of conservation. Some examples include:

  • Providing information to consumers about how their consumption compares to their neighbors’, in order to conserve resources. This intervention was successfully leveraged by Opower to reduce energy consumption. Customers who received the comparative energy reports reduced their household energy consumption both immediately after receiving the notifications and in the longer term.

  • Creating data visualizations that build consumer awareness. In Cape Town, South Africa, a publicly accessible map of neighborhood water consumption was used to demonstrate to individuals that a large number of households are abiding by conservation guidelines, in order to normalize conservation targets. This intervention was deployed during a major drought and may have helped avert the “Day Zero” water crisis.

  • Sending targeted notifications to consumers to encourage positive behaviors. Researchers found that conservation-oriented bill inserts successfully helped consumers reduce their water use in South Africa, and that notifications emphasizing the social recognition and public good of conservation – as opposed to notifications that offered conservation tips or emphasized the financial cost of wasting water – were most successful at encouraging conservation behavior during the Cape Town “Day Zero” drought (you can read more about the research here).

Innovative Communication Techniques to Reduce Nonpayment

What lessons can utilities struggling with nonpayment learn from these successful conservation-focused nudges?

As we mentioned in our last post, water utilities have traditionally only communicated with their customers through a monthly, bimonthly or quarterly water bill. Many of the interventions above show that by prioritizing timely, targeted customer communication, utilities have the opportunity to positively change customer behavior. These interventions also relied on a deep understanding of the region-specific underlying factors that influenced consumers’ behavior – for example, understanding that social recognition was a more important factor in conservation for water consumers in Cape Town than lack of knowledge about the cost of water or tips on how to conserve.

We believe that the techniques that have worked for conservation may also work for nonpayment. By using predictive analytics, a utility’s customer base can be segmented into water customers at risk of nonpayment, based on the root cause of each customer’s failing to pay bills. Valor has found that sending targeted messages to these specific customer segments can motivate non-paying and late-paying customers to pay on time. In a pilot at a mid-sized utility in Georgia, we were able to reduce the amount of outstanding customer payments by 50% and decrease the total number of service shutoffs by 50%, year-over-year.

Targeted Marketing to Ease Chronic Nonpayment

Of course, nudges alone will not fully solve the affordability problem. Identifying different segments within nonpaying customers also means separating customers who for various reasons won’t pay their bill despite having the financial means, from those who can’t pay at all. For these customers who chronically struggle to afford water, CAPs and other affordability programs are a good solution. Using predictive analysis on customer data, utilities can identify which customers fall into this segment – instead of guessing or using outdated or inaccurate historical data – and tailor their CAP marketing efforts specifically to this group to increase CAP enrollment.

The Future of Affordability

When thinking about how utility affordability will look in in the next five to ten years, CAPs, policy, and rate structures play an important role. But it is also important to consider the tools that other industries – e.g., credit card companies, cellular data providers – have instituted to solve customer nonpayment. This includes more flexible payment options, such as installment plans, pay-as-you-go, pre-pay, and more. These alternative payment systems only increase the need for predictive analytics (to understand which customers need what type of assistance) and customer notifications (to communicate effectively about progress to payment). No matter the payment system that a utility offers, we believe the key to reducing the vicious cycle of nonpayment, late fees, and service shutoffs is ensuring that utilities a) know and understand their customers, and b) communicate early and often with them to get ahead of nonpayment.

Stacey Isaac Berahzer is a water project consultant with 16 years of experience. Through IB Environmental, she helps funders, nonprofits, utility companies, and communities fund and manage their water projects so they can make water clean and affordable. She specializes in policy related to water affordability and equity as well as stormwater and watershed management. She also has a background in Caribbean water issues. Stacey holds degrees in environmental science and in public administration. She facilitates the Georgia Funders’ Forum and chairs the board of the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership.

Christine E. Boyle, Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of Valor Water Analytics. Dr. Boyle’s work focuses on working with utilities to introduce technologies that drive efficiency and set a new bar for how utilities understand and utilize data. She received a doctorate in water resource planning in 2011 and “spun” Valor Water out of her thesis work at University of North Carolina.  She is a trustee of the Cal-Nevada American Water Works Association and a water policy adviser for the World Bank.

Both Stacey and Dr. Boyle are former employees of the Environmental Finance Center.

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