The National Academy of Engineering called U.S. electrification the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th Century. Such success is a tough act to follow, though I think the next act has begun and will be terrific. But it will be different, with challenges and opportunities for electric consumers.

For the record, I came to the Carolinas 20 years ago to work for a utility company. I was struck by the customer focus and precision of the employees. Following that stint, working with energy organizations big and small I have seen firsthand the innovation and care Carolinians take in their energy endeavors.

In January I emceed a forum of electric innovators and investors at Launch LKN (Lake Norman area in North Carolina). Entrepreneurs demonstrated new electric products and services.

Implicitly all that work is aimed at customers. It’s not entirely for the sake of innovation. After all, no customers, no company. I am a believer in the competitive power of enterprise as an ultimate “wisdom of the crowd” approach to problem-solving and service.

As customers gain more choice in products and service, I believe an emerging phase of the electric industry is finally here in force. A new kind of customer involvement puts a heavier obligation on customers to learn about their electricity, something frankly not on their radar before.

This phase started as business models began changing: new companies to blaze trails, traditional companies embracing a strategy of continuous evolution, and, here’s the key, customers inquiring about and willing to adopt new energy technology. Early adopters may be climbing the curve to become the early majority, in tech development parlance.

Consumer knowledge will support this evolution. Further electrification will correlate to consumers’ increased Q&A about several topics, among them:

  • More individual control over energy use; more teamwork, too
  • How electricity is made, and why it matters
  • Diversity of electricity generation (read: is risk spread?)
  • Deeper and more thorough understanding of what is “clean”
  • Changing government role in the business and energy environment

This has to be a gentle yet definite direction. One expert said of people and change, “It’s always easier to say No than to say Yes.” If that is the case, “Enable the Yes,” may be good advice for electric innovators and business people.

After two decades in the industry, my growing interest is on the evolving consumer and how the customer will shape the electric industry. Consumers ought to have access to a broad sweep of energy viewpoints, not just the extreme or loudest; information to drive stakeholder harmony and speed of applying innovation in all its forms.

The public voice advances the cause of wise energy use. One utility in the western U.S. polled its customers for a strategic plan. Top customer responses were about infrastructure improvement, cost containment, alternative energy and environmental responsibility. These high-level guidelines are helpful; drilling down for details will be critical. “Little things make big things happen,” said basketball coach John Wooden.

I am convinced that we do not have a genuine sense of how dramatic and useful consumer input and education can be, from the kinds of products, decisions of energy ownership, or to pace the change.

The need: Get customer clarity early and often. Long ago I had the chance to work with legendary salesperson and speaker Zig Ziglar. A real gentleman. He said, “Statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it.

The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.”

Point made, though rather than complaints, I like dialogue to gather insight. Dialogue is pro-active, builds trust and understanding. Zig’s larger point can be magnified in the coming energy environment. That is positive.

What’s next? Plug in. Useful dialogue. Extend the discussion. Hear from electric energy innovators. Communicate other interesting viewpoints. Spur each other in sharing ideas.