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Can Voice-Activated Devices Make Smart Devices Even Smarter for Energy Savings?

Brett Feldman
May 07, 2019

Smart Home 4

The energy industry, among other sectors, has an ongoing philosophical debate if automation or behavior change is more effective to accomplish goals like energy savings. For instance, smart devices could adjust themselves without consumer involvement (or even knowledge in some cases) or people can be notified and educated of the need and benefits of changing consumption to incentivize them to do so. The answer is some combination of the two strategies in a complementary manner, but it is fun to theorize on the proper balance to achieve cost-effective results.

Voice-Activated Devices: the Next Frontier

The most recent example of this trend is Google’s new utility program, which allows energy providers to use the Google Assistant voice-activated device (VAD) as a platform for enhanced customer engagement. Through this integration, providers can deliver personalized bill, usage, and insights over Google Assistant-enabled devices. Google is making new application programming interfaces (APIs) to codify its work for utility and energy partners. The new APIs should make future deployments faster and cheaper to implement. Also, software firms like Tendril and Oracle are collaborating with Google to more tightly integrate their technologies. They give Google a greater ability to work with its own Nest smart thermostats, which have penetrated into many utility demand side management (DSM) programs.

This extension of VADs into the utility customer engagement and DSM realm is the latest step in the evolution of behavioral and smart device initiatives. It started over 10 years ago with in-home displays (IHDs) that tried to encourage people to save energy by showing usage and pricing (before there were smart thermostats and mobile apps). IHDs did not prove to be cost-effective and some morphed into digital picture frames with more success. Interestingly, the idea of home displays has come back in style with companies like Google and Amazon selling smart displays. However, these have not yet been tested for energy saving.

Other Tech Is Upping the Ante

Around the same time as IHDs, home energy reports (HERs) debuted. As opposed to IHDs, HERs are static documents that show a snapshot of energy consumption and use the power of normative comparisons to neighbors to entice people to act. HERs are still in use in paper and digital forms today and continue to achieve measurable savings.

About 5 years ago, smart thermostats made a splash in the market. This is where the transition from behavioral to automated strategies came into play. Rather than relying on consumers to proactively make changes, smart thermostats have machine learning capabilities to optimize usage and can communicate with the utility and other parties to receive signals and instructions.

In the last couple of years, utilities have rolled out online marketplaces for customers to purchase energy saving devices and appliances (and even solar panels and EVs). This can be seen as the Amazonification of utility customer engagement and DSM, which points back to the VADs as the next frontier. Will customers use them to inquire about and control their energy usage, or is it better to try to automate everything and leave the human factor out? I don’t know, go ask Alexa.