The national association for utility regulators is holding its annual meeting this week in St. Louis, where members are hearing sessions on everything from fuel hedges and pipeline safety to smart grids and cyber security.
Perhaps the most surprising speaker: Kris Bowring, a senior business team leader for Best Buy.
What is someone from an electronics retailer doing addressing a gathering of public utility commissioners?
Bowring spoke Sunday on a panel billed: "Empowering the Consumer: What Does It Mean? How Do You Achieve It?" Those are questions Best Buy has put a lot of thought and research into as it prepares to enter the home energy market.
Best Buy rolled out new home energy departments this month in three test stores in Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. They feature gadgets and systems to help customers monitor and fine tune their home energy use, such as smart thermostats or apps that can control lights, locks and appliances.
"We've asked a lot of questions about energy efficiency and what consumers want, how they want it, and what's confusing about it," Bowring said in an interview last week.
One of the key takeaways: "It has to be about more than just energy efficiency."
Bowring shares a story about being at the San Francisco airport recently and using a smartphone app to check the current energy usage at his home back in Minnesota. He noticed a light had been left on in the garage, and he was able to remotely switch it off with just a couple of taps on his phone.
It's that kind of wonder and convenience that's going to inspire more people to begin paying attention to their energy use. "Once you understand your consumption, you typically reduce it, or at least make the effort," Bowring said.
In order to make those energy conservation efforts stick, consumers also need clear information about the impact of their changes — something that's often not easy to decipher from looking at an energy bill. "They're not sure of the benefits and they're not quite clear if it's actually helping," he said.
The company's research suggests that even people who are interested in doing the right thing don't know where to start, and that they want someone to talk to, "and that's clearly where Best Buy fits," Bowring said.
"This whole department is there to help people learn and play with the technology; to see how it works and how it might look in your home, and then be able to talk with someone who's going to be knowledgable about the technology," Bowring said.
Best Buy has also partnered with local utilities in each of its three test markets (Constellation Energy in Chicago, Reliant Energy in Houston, and Pacific Gas and Electric in San Francisco) to connect customers with rebates and other incentives.
Products the departments are carrying include home automation components from Smarthome, energy monitoring software from Check-It, and the much buzzed-about Nest thermostat, designed by a former Apple iPod designer.
The new departments have been open less than two weeks. It's too soon to speculate on when a broader roll-out might happen, said Bowring. Best Buy also added a Home Energy store section to its website that includes energy savings calculators, links to local rebates and product descriptions.
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners annual meeting continues through Wednesday.