On 8 December, Maj Dang Trong, Senior Adviser at Nordic Energy Research, defended her PhD on consumer engagement in energy markets – its role, development, and impact on network tariffs and customer service.

In her thesis, Maj has investigated the extent to which Danish consumers want to engage with their electricity company. Among other things, the project provides insight into our response to shifting electricity prices and how willing we are to change our consumption habits and be flexible in our electricity consumption. 

Maj Dang Trong is congratulated by her colleague, Lise Nielsen, Senior Adviser at Nordic Energy Research, on completing her PhD disputation. Photo: Kim Dang Trong.

It is difficult to find a topic that has received more attention in recent months. We check apps. We get up in the middle of the night to start the washing machine. We turn off the switches so that our television is not on standby and turn down the heat, even though the thermostat shows minus degrees. Many of us feel the energy crisis in the form of bigger bills, and it shapes our behavior and fills the conversations over lunch tables, at the local grocery store, and in the media. 

The situation was quite different when Maj Dang Trong started her PhD project at the Department of Sociology, Environmental and Business Economics at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU). Most consumers took electricity for granted. It was something most of us only thought of when the power occasionally went out and the house suddenly fell into darkness, for example, on Christmas Eve when many Danish people roast the duck in the oven at the same time. 

That is why Maj set out to create a greater understanding of the Danish consumers’ relationship and attitude towards their electricity company – knowledge that suddenly takes on a completely new meaning under the current energy crisis.

Read the article “Electricity customers need to look over the hedge to understand tariffs“, published by Green Power Denmark.

Consumer interviews

Maj Dang Trong was challenged by one of the opponents about her use of three different interview techniques. Neither the focus group interviews of households nor the in-depth interview of owners of electric vehicles or the interview with distribution companies were statistically representative of the  national population. This problem about generalization and purposeful sampling methods was also an issue challenged in the analysis of the questionnaire of fairness perception of electricity prices. At the time of writing the thesis, the selection of so-called “engaged consumers” was especially important: Who was supposed to reflect on new electricity tariff reforms other than consumer representatives in consumer owned distribution companies and members of energy organizations? Would the PhD student have chosen other selection methods today? Yes, she would maybe have increased the target population to include participants in the interviews who showed to be relatively more engaged, such as EV owners and young people who recently and for the first time have moved into their own apartment. In any case, a national study should not have any budget restrictions – and the questions in the questionnaire may need more explanation. Even though people are more engaged in electricity prices, they do not necessary reflect on different elements of the total electricity price. 

The second opponent asked the PhD student if she believed that the household consumer was able to provide sufficient flexibility needed for the balancing and supporting of a power system dominated by fluctuation wind power production? This issue was not the main topic of the thesis, but the interviewees in distributions companies emphasised the need for so-called Explicit Demand-side Flexibility. This kind of flexibility is committed, dispatchable flexibility that can be traded (similar to generation flexibility) on the different energy markets (wholesale, balancing, system support, and reserves markets). This is usually facilitated and managed by an aggregator that can be an independent service provider or a supplier. Today, residential customers are not allowed to or capable of providing “reliable” flexibility. For households, flexibility needs to reflect in their everyday rhythm and practices, where implicit demand-side flexibility must be activated by moving (shifting) or reducing the electricity needs.  

Consumer involvement

The defense ended with a discussion on the need for (further) consumer involvement from the electricty distribution companies. The question from the last opponent clearly showed that he hardly distinguished between his energy trader and his distribution network company. He had recently contacted his retailer and was surprised by the lack of customer support and staff’s ability to explain his electricity bill to him. Did the PhD student have som advice for him? The answer might be: Do not give up – continue you effort until you receive a satisfying answer. We know, at one extreme, that consumers actively choose to protest, but at the other extreme, that consumers actively choose that they would rather stay on their sofa. 

A tariff reform can be perceived as so unfair that some will protest against the price change. Others make an active choice not to be flexible in their electricity consumption.

In addition, there are people who experience misrecognition and people who do not always have the mental capabilities to experience misrecognition or to understand electricity reforms appropriately.  People can be unable to react on time varying prices – or not capable of being flexible in their use of electricity. 

Concluding remarks

Maj concludes by linking her thesis to present conflicts. Europe is currently facing dramatically increased energy prices, and in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the uncertainty of supply is exacerbating the problem. The consumer perception on what is “overall” a fair electricity price (including distribution network tariffs) is more relevant than ever. The thesis may reflect history and we may see more people to whom the “reaction – action” implies more active choices in their energy use and more skepticism toward their electricity companies (distribution companies or not).