Smart home electrical panel, meet voice-activated home controls. 

That’s the connection being made by San Francisco-based startup Span with its Tuesday announcement of a $20 million investment, led by Munich Re Ventures’ HSB Fund and joined by previous investors, plus an important new strategic partner — the Alexa Fund. 

Over the past five years, Amazon’s corporate venture capital fund has been investing in a range of technologies that can integrate with its market-leading home automation and digital assistant business. Those include a subset of home energy management systems, such as smart thermostat provider ecobee and wireless energy sensor startup Tado

Now that list includes Span’s Wi-Fi-connected electrical panel, which gives homeowners smartphone visibility and control over how much power is flowing to individual household circuits and from solar panels and batteries. 

Span’s platform provides analytics to manage those loads against day-to-day energy rates. It also gives them a way to select which ones remain powered by behind-the-meter batteries during power outages — a once-rare but now increasingly common circumstance facing homeowners in its key market of California. 

Adding Alexa interactivity gives homeowners “the opportunity to interact more organically” with energy “in ways they’ve gotten used to interacting with devices in their homes,” Arch Rao, Span CEO and former head of Tesla’s energy storage business, said in an interview. 

With the integration as of this week, “Customers that have a Span panel and Alexa can ask, 'What’s consuming the most power right now?' or 'What consumed the most power last week in my home?'” That kind of visibility requires circuit-level monitoring that’s unavailable from almost all the home energy monitoring or energy disaggregation platforms today, at least not in high-resolution detail, he noted. 

Battery-equipped homeowners can also ask how many hours of backup power they have for the loads they’ve predesignated as “must-have,” and then alter the mix of appliances on that list to change how long they can remain powered during outages, he said. 

Home energy management vendors from across the spectrum are seeking to tap into the markets being opened by Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and other less-established voice-activated device (VAD) platform vendors including Apple, Samsung and Honeywell. Wood Mackenzie estimates that 65 million homes in the U.S. will own at least one standalone VAD by 2023 and that they’ll become a key platform for managing home energy in the coming years. 

Growing competition for the smart home energy center 

This kind of integration is being pursued by a host of competitors to Span’s early entry into the smart electrical panel business. Heavyweights in the industry such as Schneider Electric and Eaton have introduced their own versions, aimed largely at homes with rooftop solar and batteries that often require upgrading existing electrical panels and hard-wiring loads for backup during power outages. 

Solar and battery vendors including TeslaSunrunsonnenGeneracSolarEdge and Enphase are promising more sophisticated technologies to manage time-of-use rates and balance battery supply against household demand during blackouts. Startups such as Lumin and ConnectDER that make add-on hardware that can accomplish similar tasks are seeing increased uptake by solar-battery installers and utilities, respectively. 

While Rao wouldn’t disclose the number of Span panels sold to date, he did note that they’ve been installed mostly in California, but also in Hawaii, Texas, Florida, Nevada and Washington state. The company’s panels are part of a “customizable backup” solar-storage offering from LG Chem, and Span has also partnered with Panasonic’s home battery business. 

“Schneider, Eaton and others are realizing [homeowners] want to buy these products, which validates our thesis,” he said. 

Electric vehicles, which can consume up to half or more of a typical home’s entire electricity load, are a key next target for integration. Span has demonstrated control over EV chargers from open-source EV charging provider OpenEVSE, and it is working on integration with more vendors, Rao said, though he wouldn’t provide names. 

Beyond that, “the upcoming decade is going to be about electrification — not just of vehicles, but of everything,” he said. “And there’s an increasing realization that this cannot happen without modernization of our infrastructure.” 

Munich RE, one of the largest reinsurance providers in the world, is also exploring strategic opportunities with Span, Rao said. “They are the backstop for a lot of the home insurance products you see out there. One of their convictions is around the need for a digital interface in the home,” to support products like warranties for solar systems or appliances. 

Span is also looking at ways its panel can serve utility needs, Rao said. While he wouldn’t provide details, the company is working with a handful of utilities “that are looking at the panel as the next generation of devices they can give to consumers,’ he said. “Not only can it give you the high-resolution data set, [but] it can give you metering data to the solar generation output and multiple loads” that utility smart meters can’t access.