Pandemic caused surge in power use, but not in love for utilities

ANN ARBOR—Household power consumption surged during the pandemic, but customer perceptions of utilities barely budged.

Residential customer satisfaction with the energy utilities sector overall ticked down 0.1 percent to 72.0 (on a scale of 0 to 100), according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index Energy Utilities Report 2020-2021.

Of the three categories the report measures, cooperative energy utilities remained the satisfaction leaders with an unchanged ACSI score of 73, followed closely by investor-owned energy utilities, steady at 72. Only municipal energy utilities declined, with a drop of 1.4 percent to 71. While residential customer satisfaction is mostly flat, all three energy utility categories are among the bottom dozen industries in the Index.

Natural gas service retreated for the third straight year, declining 1 percent to 75, but still outperforms electricity, which remained unchanged at 71, a record low point since 2004.

“The recent extreme storms and resulting blackouts in Texas occurred after ACSI’s interview period ended, but shined a harsh spotlight on the need for reliable electric service,” says David VanAmburg, managing director at the ACSI. “Customers interviewed throughout 2020 note that overall quality and reliability of electric service have diminished compared to 2019. Perceptions of value, however, are stable or slightly improved. Some might view higher bills during the pandemic as a tradeoff to savings in commuting, travel, and restaurants during lockdown. Another factor might be the shutoff moratoria that allowed residential customers to defer utility payments without threat of losing service.”

Atmos Energy, CenterPoint Energy, and NextEra Energy tie for top score among investor-owned utilities

After two years of customer satisfaction decline, the investor-owned energy utility industry overall held steady with an ACSI score of 72, continuing to match its record low from 2016.

The trio of leading utilities in 2021—Atmos Energy (down 3 percent), CenterPoint Energy (down 1 percent), and NextEra Energy (unchanged)—were tied with ACSI scores of 76. This represents the lowest leading ACSI score for the industry over time.

NiSource and Southern Company were steady at 75, a score that remains an all-time low for the latter, while PPL edges up 1 percent to 74.

A large group of seven utilities hovered just above the industry average with ACSI scores of 73. For six of these providers (Ameren, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Dominion Energy, DTE Energy, Public Service Enterprise Group, and WEC Energy), customer satisfaction showed little movement year over year. Only Consolidated Edison lost more ground—down 3 percent to 73.

Of the six energy utilities that matched the industry average of 72, four (Entergy, Exelon, FirstEnergy, and Xcel Energy) were stable or within a point of their prior score. Two, Edison International and Sempra Energy, slid 3 and 4 percent, respectively.

CMS Energy declined 3 percent to 71, matching Duke Energy (unchanged). Close by, the group of smaller investor-owned utilities backtracked 3 percent to 70 to tie with National Grid (unchanged) and American Electric Power. While American Electric Power showed the most improvement with a jump of 3 percent, its customer satisfaction stayed well below its historic ACSI average of 75.

At the bottom of the industry, Eversource Energy tumbled 6 percent to 65 and beleaguered PG&E, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2020, dropped 3 percent to 61 after plummeting 10 percent one year ago.

To enhance understanding of the residential customer experience, the ACSI now measures mobile app performance across the energy utilities sector. With ample resources to invest in apps, the investor-owned category received its top customer experience marks for both mobile app quality and reliability (79). Relative to most other ACSI industries, however, energy utility apps need to improve as all three categories score below average on these measures.

Salt River Project stumbles, but stays atop municipal energy utilities

Customer satisfaction with municipal energy utilities overall shed 1.4 percent to an ACSI score of 71 following two years of slow decline. Perennial industry leader Salt River Project stayed atop the category, but waned 3 percent to a record low of 75.

CPS Energy edged closer to Salt River Project with a 1 percent uptick to 73. Smaller municipal energy utilities inched down 1 percent to 71. After tying with CPS Energy and the smaller providers one year ago, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) plummeted 6 percent to 68.

Touchstone Energy now neck and neck with all other cooperative energy utilities as its decline continues

Cooperative energy utilities serving small rural communities kept customer satisfaction steady at an ACSI score of 73 after falling nearly 3 percent one year ago.

Touchstone Energy dropped 1 percent to a customer satisfaction score of 73, continuing a four-year ACSI decline. The group of smaller cooperatives gained just a point to tie with Touchstone at 73 following a steep decline the prior year.

With fewer resources to provide robust apps, smaller rural utilities earn a mobile app quality score of 77. This places them at the bottom among all ACSI industries, along with the poorly performing subscription television service industry.

The ACSI Energy Utilities Report 2020-2021 is based on interviews with 21,736 residential customers, chosen at random and contacted via email between January 13 and December 28, 2020. Download the full report, and follow the ACSI on LinkedIn and Twitter at @theACSI.

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