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How can network operators support the vulnerable customer of the future?

The energy transition will change the way customers use and interact with energy – opportunities to play a more active and important role will arise with the emergence of new products and services. As the electrification of heat and transport gathers pace, customers will also be increasingly reliant on electricity to meet their energy needs. What does this mean for vulnerable customers and what role can DSOs play to support them, so no one is left out?

To answer this, we firstly need to understand who the vulnerable customer of the future might be. As the energy transition evolves, customer vulnerability will also change. New types of vulnerability may emerge relating to:

  • Lack of affordability – many low carbon technologies come with a hefty price tag, creating difficulties for customers on low incomes to access them.
  • Lack of accessibility – the digitalisation and complexity of some services will exclude customers from accessing them, such as those who are not digitally active. We explored this topic in previous research for Citizens Advice on a range of new energy customer propositions. There is a challenge to ensure that customers aren’t left out of accessing the value these services could bring.
  • Greater dependence on reliable electricity connections – the electrification of heat and transport means customers will rely more heavily on electricity to meet their needs. We need to understand what impacts this will have on different types of customers.

This means that customers who aren’t currently classed as vulnerable might be in the future. For example, a customer living in a rural area with an EV as their only transport option may be dependent on having a reliable electricity connection for their everyday travel needs. Existing definitions and classifications of vulnerability will need to evolve to capture these new types of vulnerability.

DSOs are already starting to think more about the energy needs of their customers – a shift is required to place them at the heart of network decisions. To do this, DSOs need to really understand customer needs and how vulnerabilities may vary between different customer groups and locations.

A range of solutions need to be assessed to understand how DSOs can best support vulnerable customers. This may build on existing support services for existing vulnerable customers – such as enhanced customer support during power cuts and provision of generators. Further practical support is likely to be needed, such as storage or alternative transport options in the event of power cuts. DSOs will need to consider how vulnerable customers can be supported through network planning, and more widely about the customer impact of their other activities. For example, what are the customer impacts of the flexibility services they procure?

Supporting vulnerable customers will need a multi-pronged approach and further work is required to understand this. But the importance of this is clear – we need to make sure that customers are not left behind and can take advantage of opportunities presented by the energy transition.  

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