Q:What are the best ways to communicate rate changes to utility customers?

A:With the cost of energy rising, it’s time to rethink your rate communication strategy so you can offer customers proactive communications before rate increases show up on their bills. Your customers want to understand how a rate change will affect four personal values:

  • Their families, their businesses, and their own lives
  • The environment
  • Future generations
  • Their communities

Communicate rate increases clearly and directly, and frame them as stories where your customers play leading roles. For example, in its March 18, 2022, Twitter post, Con Edison started its caption with “Weather, demand, and world events all effect [sic] energy costs.” The statement suggests that by paying higher rates, New Yorkers are being good world citizens.

We also recommend communicating rate changes by:

  • Being proactive and building trust
  • Keeping messages simple by avoiding jargon and confusing mathematical analyses
  • Highlighting your commitment to keeping costs affordable and equitable
  • Featuring bill assistance programs, including gift-of-energy programs
  • Posting on social media channels
  • Using market research to enhance your communication strategy
  • Treating small and midsize business customers as a unique group

What are utilities including in their rate-change communications?

Their commitment to renewable energy

Until 2022, Nova Scotia Power went 10 years without submitting a general rate application. In 2012 NS Power created a platform for customers to ask questions about rate cases and rate increases.

In its Tomorrow’s Power marketing campaign, which you can find in E Source Energy AdVision, NS Power featured some of those customers and their questions (figure 1). Rather than focusing on the costs, NS Power focused its messaging on how it will deliver better and cleaner energy. And it continued to encourage customers to ask questions.

Figure 1: Direct mail postcard from NS Power

NS Power featured a customer in its direct mail postcard who had asked why rate increases were so high. In its explanation, NS Power explained that it’s working toward distributing cleaner energy by “switching [from coal] to more locally-generated energy and renewable sources.”
Postcard that features an NS Power customer and their question on why rates are so high. In the explanation, NS Power focuses its messaging on the importance of moving from coal to renewable energy.

Today, NS Power has a web page for its 2022–2024 General Rate Application. Like its 2012 messaging, NS Power’s current messaging focuses on providing reliable electricity through cleaner energy sources:

Climate change is a real concern for all of us. The Federal and Provincial Governments are focused on reducing carbon emissions on an expedited basis to mitigate potential impacts. This includes the requirement to phase out coal-fired electricity and deliver 80 per cent renewable energy for customers by 2030. We are committed to achieving these goals which means we need to transform how we make, deliver and store electricity in less than 10 years to change an electrical system that took over 50 years to build.

Nova Scotia’s weather is changing too, bringing more intense storm events and increased wind speeds which affect reliability. Delivering reliable service is more important than ever because today’s technology is driving an increased demand for electricity. Our customers rely on electricity to live, work and thrive in a modern Nova Scotia. This means we need to strengthen and modernize our electrical system so that it can stand up to changing weather and meet the energy needs of our customers.

On its web page, NS Power links to its rate application and related resources. It also has an FAQ section that includes answers to questions like:

  • How much are rates going up?
  • Why do rates continue to increase?
  • What supports are in place to assist customers?

Their commitment to affordable rates

Seattle City Light emphasizes affordability and renewable energy on its Residential Rates web page:

City Light rates are more affordable compared to many cities in the country because we’re a public, not-for-profit utility and we primarily rely on low-cost, renewable, carbon-free hydroelectricity. We focus on providing stable, predictable rates that allow us to deliver sustainable, reliable, and affordable service.

The web page includes information about what’s included in bill charges and defines “watt” and “kilowatt-hour” for customers. City Light’s rates page also includes visual elements:

  • It features a table showing all its current residential rates.
  • It has a chart, breaking down everything that’s covered in its rates such as power, delivery, taxes, and metering.
  • It shows a map of the US, comparing City Light’s rates to rates in nine US cities.

Their commitment to reliable service

Fort Collins Utilities has one web page for Residential Rates and a second web page for Commercial Rates. On both pages, the utility mentions its commitment to reliable service and equitable rates:

Fort Collins Utilities regularly reviews its rates and makes adjustments to reflect the costs of providing reliable and quality electric, water, wastewater and stormwater services. […] As a municipal utility, one of our roles is to ensure our rates remain fair and equitable. We accomplish this through bi-annual, cost-of-service studies to identify operational expenses associated with the delivery of services.

Fort Collins Utilities also gives customers an overview of the rate-change timeline, making it clear to customers when they can expect changes to their bills. And the residential rates page includes resources for customers to manage their bills.

Information on who sets rates and what’s included in costs

Southern California Edison (SCE) explains that it works with the California Public Utilities Commission to set rates in a process that’s open to the public. On its How Rates Are Set web page, SCE breaks down what’s covered in rates. For example, out of $1.00:

  • $0.46 goes to generation costs
  • $0.37 goes to distribution costs
  • $0.08 goes to transmission costs
  • $0.05 goes to wildfire costs
  • $0.04 goes to public purpose programs

The web page also includes an educational video explaining rate design. The video details what goes into determining the cost of electricity and mentions that aggressive renewable goals require infrastructure that supports transmission and backup power. It also explains that research and development contribute to costs, and lists specific programs such as the California Solar Initiative and Self-Generation Incentive Program that affect pricing.

Meeting ambitious renewable goals is important to Californians, so explaining rates in relation to these goals helps customers understand the benefit of a rate change.

Rate adjustment projections

Tacoma Public Utilities’ (TPU’s) Rate Information web page features rate adjustment projections for its residential customers, showing average yearly increases by percentage and average monthly increases by the dollar amount. And it links to its rate adjustment projections for commercial customers (PDF).

The web page also has information on how TPU addresses equity when planning rates and how it manages costs and affordability. At the bottom of the page, the utility links to resources—budget billing, payment assistance, energy conservation, and zero-interest loans—customers can use to manage their bills.

Explanations behind rate changes

Xcel Energy features a video on its Rate Cases web page to explain to customers why rates increase and who’s involved in approving rate changes (figure 2).

Figure 2: Xcel Energy rate-case video

The video explains that unlike unregulated businesses that can change their pricing structure at any time, regulated utilities can change rates only if a regulatory committee approves it. The video highlights Xcel Energy’s value by emphasizing its investments to improve infrastructure and repair storm damage. It also lists the number of facilities, hardware, and personnel it takes to supply homes with energy.

How are utilities communicating about rate changes on social media?

Most utility posts about rate changes include information about when utilities submit a rate case and where customers can go for more information about the process and expected timeline. We’re also seeing utilities post about financial assistance in relation to rate increase. Figure 3 shows examples of recent utility social media posts about rate changes.

Figure 3: Utility social media posts about rate changes

NS Power alerted customers the day it submitted a rate-increase application, and directed them to a web page with more-detailed explanations behind the increase.
Central Maine Power shared a video of its VP of Customer Service, Linda Ball, who explains who’s responsible for setting rates and encourages customers to call with questions.
UniSource Energy Services let customers know their winter gas bills would likely increase $2.50–$8.50 a month because of rising gas prices. It also reminded customers of utility billing programs and federal assistance programs available to them.

Any time you post about rates, you’ll experience unhappy customer comments. Our report Addressing negativity on social media gives tips and examples on how to respond to these comments and alleviate customer concerns. This report is available to members of the E Source Corporate Communications Service.

More resources on rate communications

During the public webinar Reimagining electricity pricing to meet beneficial-electrification and carbon-reduction goals: Now’s the time for big changes, two national experts have a lively conversation around electricity pricing, including how to design pricing options that customers actually understand and want.

Answering questions about high bills looks at ways you can help customers struggling with high energy bills.

Contributing Authors

Solution Director, Marketing, Communication and Account Management

Angelica Pereira helps utilities and cities improve their customer experience, marketing, and account management strategies. Prior to working at E...