A growing number of people are becoming accustomed to asking Alexa or Google when they want to hear music, make a call, watch videos and more. Now, an Indiana utility wants to use smart speaker technology to connect to its customers and ultimately try to help them improve energy efficiency.
Fort Wayne-based Indiana Michigan Power (I&M), which is an operating company of American Electric Power, says its customers can get information on how they use energy by using voice commands through Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant.
I&M Principal Communications Consultant Tracy Warner says the move is key for the utility to keep up with consumer behavior.
"I&M strives to communicate with customers using the ways that they want to communicate, and technology offers a lot more ways," Warner says. "Facebook is increasingly a way that customers communicate with us, and now the smart speakers are catching on and more people are using them for other reasons, so we wanted to give them the option to use it with I&M as well."
Initially, customers will be able to ask for information about I&M, including: Does I&M have renewables? Does I&M have energy rebates? Does I&M have any job openings? However, Warner also believes the utility is among the first to also offer personalized, interactive features on smart speakers. He says users can ask about their bills, see if their energy use is normal and get updates on outages.
As time goes on, Warner expects Indiana Michigan Power to continue to add functions and features to its smart speaker capabilities. For example, he says customers could not only ask how much their bill is, but could potentially pay it with a voice command. Or, in addition to asking how to save energy at home, they could use their virtual assistant to actually adjust their thermostat.
"You might ask I&M, ‘Are there ways to save energy?’ and I&M could offer those ways and adjust your thermostat through one of the voice channels," Warner tells Inside INdiana Business. They’re not here now…but there seems to be almost an unlimited amount of activities and functions that could be possible with this new channel."
On top of trying to be more consumer-friendly, I&M says the offering is a net positive environmentally, as well. "We want to give them more information," says Warner, "give them information about how they are using energy, maybe notify them if their energy use is up."
The utility says the move plays into its ongoing effort to reduce emissions, adding more than half of its generation is emission-free. It serves nearly 594,000 customers.
Warner says the trend is only going to continue to grow, as customers look for new ways to manage their energy use. He says capabilities like virtual assistant interactions will allow them to do that more easily.
Warner details some of the questions users will be able to ask their virtual assistants.
Warner says the utility plans to add more personalized functions in the future.