Consumer smart home begins gradual utility encroachment

Two separate announcements from close rivals are demonstrative of the beginning of a trend that might displace a number of companies in the smart metering, smart home, and smart grid sectors. It’s a feature-creep that might never materialize, but be warned, it’s definitely on the cards – as Amazon’s Alexa finds a home in Presciense’s Polaris in-home display (IHD) for smart meters, and Google’s Nest bypasses the need for professional installation with the Nest Thermostat E.

Initially, the Polaris IHD will just display the data supplied by the smart meter, in the same fashion as a conventional IHD. However, the Amazon Alexa functions let the user say things like “Alexa, Ask Prescience Energy how much did I spend on energy this month,” or “which appliances have the highest usage in my home.”

What’s more, the Polaris gateway can also display and access data from Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), which at this point are predominantly rooftop solar panels, as well as some connected appliances. The Polaris IHD promises to enable local control of smart home devices too, all accessed through the 7-inch touchscreen and the Alexa voice interaction, with smartphone apps for remote control too. It also enables the utility to push messages and weather warnings to the screen, as well as personalized services.

The Polaris is essentially a smart home gateway, but Presciense provides the less feature-rich Mira too. With 802.11n dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and Zigbee (Home Automation 1.2, Smart Energy 1.2b), it is powered by an unspecified 1.3GHz quad-core CPU, with 1GB of DDR3 memory, and 4GB of flash. It runs Android for its OS, and houses an Ethernet port and USB 2.0 plug for wired connectivity. As it is a UK-focused product, it features support for SMETS 1 and SMETS 2, the smart metering standards mandated by the UK government.

For Google, the Nest Thermostat E has become a two-piece unit, with one that connects to the home’s boiler, the Heat Link E, and the other functioning as the conventional smart thermostat. Slightly cheaper than other Nest units, the approach should open the door to anyone who is comfortable enough wiring up a plug, but who is unable or unwilling to call out a boiler technician.

So both Amazon and Google are adding strings to their bows, creeping into the utility side of the smart home, and potentially gearing up to push them out. These are functions that the utilities themselves should be pushing to provide, as it would enable them to retain control of this ecosystem. Fortunately, the likes of Presciense will happily sell these systems and back-end services to utilities, but there’s little reason that a direct-to-consumer brand couldn’t do the same.

It would be this channel that would threaten the utility control over the in-home ecosystem, as the likes of Amazon or Google would suddenly be jumping from mostly governing the entertainment and HVAC systems into squeezing the utilities out of a market – before the utilities can even get a foothold on a market that is very much theirs for the taking.

Of course, Presciense is using an established voice-control platform to flesh out the capabilities of the Polaris, and so this isn’t a direct incursion from Amazon. But give the retail titan’s propensity for churning out its own Alexa-enabled devices, and the large developer ecosystem it has fostered, it won’t be long before other IHDs begin cropping up. So, while it seems unlikely that Amazon itself is going to build one, it might suddenly, one day, realize that it has a rather significant footprint among smart meter enabled homes – and so some leverage to use against the utilities.

The same goes for Google, should the Thermostat E prove a popular way to bypass the hassle of booking a visit from a technician. Of course, that hassle is an opportunity for the utility, if it can make the booking and installation a painless experience. However, even if that’s achieved, the utilities are not going to be able to leverage the huge web platforms that Google can use to improve it products.

But at this stage, it seems unlikely that this is going to be a race between the utility ecosystem and the platforms of Amazon and Google. The utility ecosystem is only just waking up to the opportunity, where they could massively reduce churn by providing these smart home services (SHaaS). Similarly, the direct-to-consumer platforms have been very slow to emerge, with off-the-shelf pricing still a major sticking point. Of course, a SHaaS bundle can get around that barrier, providing a quick path to a comprehensive smart home experience. As it stands, the CSPs (telcos, TV companies, ISPs, MNOs) are not very enthusiastic, and perhaps the utility space is wary of their reluctance.