Why Utilities Sometimes Want to Control Your Smart Thermostat

One of the modern the most satisfying certainties in life are dialing in the air conditioning and sitting down while the room magically maintains your desired temperature. But last week, smart thermostat owners in Texas reported that the magic was gone: their devices were setting 4 degrees above the owner’s desired temperature, as if to berate them for trying to get too much comfortable during a heat wave. A lot outrage followed.

The warm Texans had fallen into a precarious dance of electricity supply and demand. When they purchased their smart thermostats, they opted for a voluntary program called Smart Savers Texas offered by EnergyHub, a software company that runs the program for utility customers, including CenterPoint Energy. In times of high demand, like a relentless heat wave, they had agreed to allow this 4 degree bump. During such a “temperature adjustment event,” the user can manually override the increase, according to EnergyHub, but will lose their entry into a raffle – up to $ 5,000 paid for one year of electricity bills. Anyone who wants to get out of this demand response program can simply opt out.

Basically you’re putting up with a slightly warmer room to make sure your air conditioning isn’t helping to crash the grid, in which case you and everyone else will have to put up with it. a lot warmer rooms. EnergyHub is one of several companies running demand response programs nationwide, and their program is device independent, so users of a single brand of thermostat won’t notice an increase. “The real benefit of these programs is a very small inconvenience – potentially no inconvenience – to ensure that everyone has an air conditioning and lighting system during these extreme weather events, which I think are becoming more and more difficult. more and more frequent, ”says Erika Diamond, vice president of customer solutions at EnergyHub.

A representative from CenterPoint Energy sent a statement to WIRED explaining the partnership: “When CenterPoint Energy triggers a reduction event based on high temperatures or high demand, EnergyHub then begins to reduce energy through the customers it does. enrolled in its program. “

According to the email, the utility runs a “shrink test” twice a year, and ran one on June 16 from 2 to 5 p.m. The way the Texas size outrage unfolded, you’d think it was all a surprise. But not only has EnergyHub run the program there for eight years, but it also has similar programs with 50 other utilities across the country, with around 500,000 households enrolled. It initiates two to eight temperature adjustments in Texas per summer, about the same as their national average. Incentives to sign up can vary by utility (rebates on energy bills, for example), but the goal is the same: to enlist customers to help prevent the grid from functioning on its own.

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In other words, these programs reduce demand when supply is low. “The grid is sized to maintain an instant balance between supply and demand because it is so expensive to store electricity,” says David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, co-author of a recent big report on the American network. Any electricity produced must be used immediately. “If storage were to become ubiquitous and cheap, it could completely transform the way the network actually works. But for now, to move electrons through the lattice and to keep the lattice stable, you have to match supply and demand, ”he continues.

Utilities are fully aware of the strain a heat wave will put on the grid, with all those AC units buzzing around. They can even predict fluctuations in demand throughout the day, such as when people come home from work around 5 or 6 p.m. and turn on their systems. This is also when the supply tightens – utilities can only generate a limited amount of energy at any given time. “During these times, the grid is very sensitive: just one or two percent of total demand can have a huge impact,” explains Victor. “That’s why it’s so important to find strategies to reduce demand a bit or move it to another part of the day. This would then have a significant impact on the total demand for electricity.

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