Voice-assistant device platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant could give utilities a huge new opportunity to engage their customers — if they can answer questions about energy and bills with real personalized data, not just canned responses to check a web site or call a customer service rep. 

At least, that’s the hope behind a partnership announced this week, featuring home energy management startup Tendril, utility Indiana Michigan Power (I&M), and Google.

In one of the first rollouts of its kind in the U.S., the partners are promising to bring I&M customers the ability to ask their Google or Amazon voice-assistant devices a series of typical questions — Why is my bill so high? What parts of my home use the most energy? — and use Tendril’s cloud platform to answer those questions with real customer data, in ways designed to help them make effective changes to how they use energy.  

Monday’s announcement comes after a long period of working quietly with the country’s leading voice-assistant device providers, according to Tendril CTO Jake Meier“From a technology standpoint, we’re live with Google and with Amazon Alexa as well — both are available as of today,” he said in a Tuesday interview.

“We see this as an incredible new channel to engage with customers, and recognize that it’s incredibly quick-growing,” he said. Surveys from NPR and Edison Research show that 43 million voice-assistant devices were deployed by the first half of 2018, with one in six U.S. households now owning at least one. And Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables estimates that 48 million U.S. households will use voice-assistant devices as the central interface for smart home functions in the years to come.

This isn’t the first time a utility has partnered with voice-assistant device (VAD) providers. Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables analyst Fei Wang has identified approximately 15 North American utilities, most of them energy retailers, that have developed Amazon Alexa skills or Google Assistant actions to allow customer interaction via voice.

However, “The capabilities have so far been limited to basic information on energy consumption, savings tips, bill-pay capabilities and utility contact information. Reviews of such skills and actions are sparse and mediocre at best,” Wang wrote. 

Meier agrees with this assessment. “I’ve seen a few utilities that have relatively static content,” with questions like ‘How do I contact my utility?’ answered by statements like, “’The call center is open between these hours, and here’s the phone number.’” 

But Tendril, along with a handful of other energy data startups, want to use their data and analytics to deliver a much richer question-and-answer experience. As Wang noted, “A crucial step to realize this use case is for utilities to engage customers with personalized insights.”

So far, three vendors — Bidgely, Ecotagious and Tendril — have developed voice-activated functions for personalized energy insights this year, she wrote. Bidgely and Ecotagious rely on smart meter data to disaggregate individual loads within the home, while Tendril learns customer behavior and builds profiles based on data from utilities, customers and third-party sources. 

While Bidgely hasn’t announced any utility VAD projects on this front, Canadian utility BC Hydro and Ecotagious are recruiting customers to participate in a smart speaker trial to deliver personalized appliance-level insights via voice. “The main aspect to watch is the voice channel’s impact on engagement, customer behavior, customer perception of the utility and reductions in calls to customer service,” Wang noted.

The same goals apply to Tendril’s work with I&M, Meier said. While the VADs are responsible for translating the various ways that customers can ask a question into software-comprehensible requests through their natural-language processing technology, Tendril’s Orchestrated Energy platform is powering the way the VADs respond.

Tendril’s data analytics on more than 120 million households gives it a wealth of information to work with, including detailed home energy usage analytics now available via web and mobile platforms. With its VAD integrations, “We go back through the same APIs that we expose to our utility customers, to gather the relevant information and insights into that customer’s energy use, and using our behavioral techniques honed over the last decade or so.” 

So far, Tendril and its VAD partners have developed the capability to handle about two dozen types of “intents,” he said — a term for the common commands or requests that people give their VADs.

Here are some examples it provided. 

Q: How much is my bill?

A: "Your most recent bill from [date] to [date] is [$xx]. I can tell you if that's a typical bill, how your home uses energy or find ways to save."

Q: Why is my bill so high?

A: "Taking into account weather and billing cycles, you used [% more] energy compared to this time last year. Would you like to hear some recommendations for reducing your energy use?"

Q: How can I save energy?

A: "Here's an idea that could save you $ [amount] a year…[tip content]. Would you like to hear a specific tip based on your top energy usage category?"

Q: How is my home using energy?

A: "We estimate that your home used energy in the following top categories: [category 1] saw [category 1 percent] usage, your [category 2] used [category 2 percent] and your [category 3] used [category 3 percent]. Would you like to hear some ways to save in [category 1]?"

This last question underscores how Tendril’s underlying platform can deliver data that’s unavailable to the vast majority of utility-connected VADs, Meier said. “Using the underlying power of our platform, we can say, 'Your home uses energy in these top categories.' Then you’d be able to say, ‘OK Google, give me some energy savings tips in the kitchen’ — and have the personalized information for your house,” he said. (Here’s a video showing how a typical Q-and-A session might go.) 

It’s not always easy to translate all of this data into the spoken word, he said. “You have to find ways with few words to get across fairly complex subjects, like weatherization, that are more comprehensive with a graphic." However, "in some cases, we have the ability to meld both of those things together,” using the graphic displays available on the Google Hub and Amazon Echo Show devices, for example. 

Tendril and its partners have chosen which “intents” to focus on based on the most common questions utility customers ask, as well as key data the utility wants to share with customers. In the case of I&M, “We did a lot of work with them in our partnership to identify the types of calls they get and the types of sentiments that people have when they make those calls,” said Meier. “First and foremost, we want to move the needle on customer satisfaction, and just having the data at your fingertips when they ask it is important.”

I&M also wanted to make sure that Tendril could enable VADs to share information about the utility’s renewable energy portfolio and opportunities for customers to install solar panels. Reducing the load on its customer call centers is also a big driver, since that can help it shave operating margins and respond to customers faster. 

Beyond this, “We’re looking to potentially establish new revenue relationships with the utility," according to Meier. For example, utilities across the country have established web portals for customers to explore home energy-efficiency improvements, earn rebates and shop for efficiency products and services. Tendril hasn’t built in any purchase capabilities as of yet, it does have plans for that.

Tendril is also exploring opportunities to combine utility demand response program signups as a one-step addition to buying smart thermostats from partners like Google Home and its Nest home automation devices, Amazon smart thermostat partner ecobee, and Honeywell’s line of voice-activated thermostats.

As for using VADs to actively control and automate home devices, that’s not something Tendril and I&M Power are doing today, Meier said. But the company is already controlling smart thermostats via its Orchestrated Energy platform. “We have some other interesting things upcoming with some device classes that will expand beyond the thermostat. We’re working with Google, specifically with the Nest team at Google, on a variety of projects — we’re not at liberty to talk about them yet,” he added.