Six Month Social Media in Utilities Round Up

by Carolyn Elefant on May 22, 2013

in Social Media in Regulated Utilities

socialmediaiconIt’s time for another quick round up of social media sightings in state utility commission decisions. For those unfamiliar with the round ups , I search terms like “social media,” Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter in my LEXIS public utility commission data base to see how many times they’ve been mentioned. Since I started tracking back in 2009, social media related terms have risen from just a scant handful of 9 mentions to 21 in both 2011 and 2012. This year, I’ve found ten mentions to date – which is on track to match the previous two years.

Even more interesting, however, are the increasingly varied ways in which social media is getting attention. Once used almost exclusively for consumer education on green power and efficiency options, today, commissions are insisting on social media use by utilities for crisis communication and allowing utilities to employ it to communicate curtailment or to retain as contact information. The summaries below highlight some of the most interesting social media sighting in the past six months.

Social Media for Consumer Education

Utilities continue to employ social media for consumer education programs. Both Indiana Commission (2013 Ind. PUC LEXIS 119) and  Kentucky Commission  (2013 Ky. PUC LEXIS 181) approved utility proposals to promote energy efficiency programs through a variety of mechanisms, including social media. North Carolina Commission  2013 N.C. PUC LEXIS 369 allowed cost recovery for a program that incorporated social media to inform customers of the utility’s demand response programs. Finally, the California Commission  noted that it would consider funding for a consumer education program for a utility’s emergency curtailment program once the program was developed more fully.

Social Media for Crisis Communication

In the wake of storms – from Hurricane Irene to the Derocho in Maryland and an early October storm in the Northeast, utility commissions have investigated how utilities used social media to communicate with consumers and how social media might be used in the future. For example, the  New Jersey Board of Public Utilities  (2013 NJ PUC LEXIS 34) noted that utilities must communicate both before and after storms through a variety of means including social media. Multiple communication channels are important because not all consumers are comfortable with all formats, the Board observed.  Finally, the Board required JCP&L to prepare a plan which, among other things, must show how social media will be used to augment press releases and play a part in providing more frequent and accurate updates during an event.

The New Hampshire Commission  (2013 NH PUC LEXIS 16) is currently investigating utility response during the October 2011 snow storm, including use of social media to inform customers.

Other Uses

Besides these major categories, social media came up in other situations.  In a case involving vegetation management before the North Carolina Commission (2013 N.C. PUC LEXIS 590), the Commission took note of a Facebook Page populated with photos of trees created by a ten year old girl opposed to the utility’s tree cutting plan. The Tennessee Commission  (2013 Tenn. PUC LEXIS 66) rejected a petition by a homeowners association for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for acquisition of a water utility in light of complaints by residents of problems contacting association management. The Tennessee Commission noted that the Association did not even have a website, Facebook page or Twitter Account.

Last but not least, the California Commission is using social media – or social media training – as a penalty. Recall the case two years ago where a PG&E Director William Devereaux posing as a citizen named Ralph infiltrated an anti-smart grip online discussion forum. Devereaux was quickly outed, and the matter moved to the California Commission to determine whether PG&E was aware of or endorsed Devereaux’s conduct.

That proceeding has since been settled in this California Commission decision . (2013 Cal. PUC LEXIS 120). As relevant to social media, the Commission’s settlement order requires PGE hire a third party to conduct trainings on relevant issues of social media use and proper online protocols before NARUC and the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association. Finally, PG&E must improve employee education on use of social media by incorporating PG&E’s Social Media Standard messages into its Code of Conduct an add a video addressing social media as part of its training.


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