Customer Service, Executive Insight, Smart Grid

Hey Google! How much does my electricity cost?

“It’s going to be interesting to see how society deals with artificial intelligence, but it will definitely be cool.”

—Colin Angle, co-founder of iRobot

Interlopers keep knocking at the energy management door of electric utilities. Their presence initially becomes known with a large, splashy announcement followed by videos where science fiction is made real so that even the average Joe can recognize how a smart home will look.  And then, following a span shorter than a presidential election cycle, the company recognizes that serving the mass market is much more expensive, time consuming, and unprofitable than originally anticipated. At that point, the company’s home energy management efforts either fade into obscurity or explode in one last market thrust to engage regulated utilities, who have absolutely no interest in letting the interloper in.  And thus, we have seen at least 10 years of efforts by home security companies, computer software companies, cable companies, phone companies, and internet companies unable to crack the home energy management nut.

Until now.

Hey Google!  How much does my electricity cost?

Most utilities already are communicating with customers via the Internet.  Around two dozen have created an easy interface for their customers through a smart speaker or virtual assistant.  This interface extends beyond simple search engine access such as utility contact information and outage updates to personalized data.  Some utility customers can now check their accounts, make payments, and check price options.

To this end, Texas-based Reliant has incorporated Google Home Hub into its retail service offerings.  Customers who sign up for the Reliant Truly Free Weekends Plan, receive the smart display and the Google Assistant ready to connect energy users with their accounts.  Voice commands will allow them to be reminded about when their electricity is free, program appliances to take advantage of free energy prices, and notify customers when their plan is expiring and needs to be renewed.  Reliant is the first, but most certainly not the last energy company in the U.S. that will use existing software, interfaces, and tools to personalize their energy products.

Hey Siri!  Make my home smart.

Apple and Siri delivered voice recognition software to the mass market. Siri also can direct iHome products that focus on making home energy usage monitored and controlled through voice activated commands. The iHome plug, for example, interfaces between anything that requires electric supply and a wall socket.  On its own, it does nothing much.  But combine with an Apple HomeKit and Siri and you have a voice activated control of speakers, cameras, and lights. Even better than something that can clap on and clap off, the HomeKit allows you to monitor and control your plugged-in appliances from afar.  And if you can do it, the next step is to let home energy management protocols do it for you.

Individual appliances already provide similar monitoring and control.  State-of-the-art boilers already can communicate with smart phones, refrigerators can tell you what should be on your grocery list as well as the temperature, and of course, thermostats such as Nest pioneered virtual controls and self-programming tied to pattern recognition. Without a proprietary software platform, it was just a matter of time before someone pulled it all together via the Internet to truly make a smart home and a difference on your electricity bill.  Virtual assistants such as Siri promise to be at your beck and call, but other smart speakers also can comply.

Hey Alexa!  Turn off the lights.

Amazon’s Alexa may have been the first to realize the opportunity to serve as the platform to combine disparate functions into one. Able to turn off all the lights in the house, dim them, or change their color, Amazon has promised to allow Alexa to do even more by offering open source code to software developers.

The combination of open source code and intent may make Amazon’s Alexa the most promising front-runner for home energy management solutions.  Google is geared towards information and advertising.  Siri is geared towards being a personal assistant that makes life easier and more convenient.  Amazon, however, is geared towards shopping, and energy is a product that increasingly can be shopped around along with the energy management equipment and gadgets.

Regardless of who becomes the front-runner, sizable balance sheets backing each of the three big players, plus others such as Facebook, promise trillions of dollars will be invested in voice recognition software and technological innovations required to manage home energy usage.

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Infographics and videos from the early stages of home energy management aspirations often had a homeowner interfacing with a screen.  Today, that interaction is voice activated.  The proliferation of smart speakers already makes energy awareness, conservation, and home energy management decisions simpler, easier, and automatic.  Although still in the nascent stage, opportunities for smart homes should be readily apparent.  If nothing else, smart speakers and virtual assistants already have overcome the barrier that other companies failed to overcome by serving as a tool for utilities as opposed to a threat. The Trojan Horse may have finally entered the fortress of residential ratepayers.

About the author: Tanya Bodell is the Executive Director of Energyzt, a global collaboration of energy experts who create value for investors in energy through actionable insights. Visit www.energyzt.com. She can be reached at: [email protected] or 617-416-0651.