As the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) urged residents last week to limit their energy use and avoid shorting the grid amid high temperatures and demand spikes, a number of Texans with smart thermostats were dismayed to find that this was being taken care of for them.
Brandon English, of Deer Park, Texas, for example, returned home from work last week to find his house right at 78 degrees fahrenheit, the temperature ERCOT recommended to reduce grid strain. But English wasn’t the one to set it there: It had been changed by a third party while his wife and child were napping.
“They woke up sweating,” English told local Houston CBS-affiliate KHOU 11. “Was my daughter at the point of overheating? She’s 3 months old. They dehydrate very quickly.”
English—like other Texans with similar setups—was caught off guard by the change. But his device was doing something it was designed to do: Limiting his energy use during a period of high demand to prevent large-scale blackouts and reduce the need for fossil-fuel peaker power plants, which only go online a few times a year around times of peak demand, but are typically inefficient and have higher emission rates than traditional power plants.
English didn’t realize when his family started using a smart thermostat that he’d enrolled in a grid-response program called “Smart Savers Texas,” operated by software company EnergyHub, which works with utility companies and grid operators like ERCOT to power down customer-owned devices during peak demand. They were brought into the program through a sweepstakes’ English told KHOU 11 he swiftly unenrolled from upon learning he’d handed partial control over his thermostat to a third party.
The company says participants “actively agree” to grid responsiveness services, and have the ability to opt-out at any time, as English did.
“During a demand response event, Smart Savers Texas increases the temperature on participating thermostats by up to four degrees to reduce energy consumption and relieve stress on the grid,” Erika Diamond, vice president of customer solutions at EnergyHub told Motherboard in a statement over email. “The ability to reduce energy consumption is critical to managing the grid, in Texas and nationwide.”
Incentive programs for smart thermostats have become relatively common across the U.S. as a method for increasing energy efficiency en masse. Utilities and smart thermostat device and platform companies alike are running sweepstakes in states like California, Illinois, Maryland, Rhode Island, and New York to encourage their use, offering free or reduced-cost thermostats or other prizes for enrolling in grid response services.
Smart thermostats offer the promise of helping communities manage possible blackout events, but they are also part of a trend of smart appliances that has, broadly speaking, given the manufacturers of devices a huge amount of control over devices that consumers nominally own. Connecting hardware that was once "dumb" to the internet has ramifications for a person's digital security and autonomy—though a user may own a device, they often have to agree to onerous End User License Agreements that given companies wide control over how their devices are used. Think coffee machines that only brew pods from approved manufacturers, refrigerators that don't take "unauthorized" filters, and connected lights and smart home hubs that brick themselves because of software updates or because the manufacturer goes bankrupt.
In many cases, smart thermostats simply give users more control over their energy consumption and give them the option to reduce energy waste when they’re not home. If you’re at work and realize you left your air conditioning on during a heat wave, for example, a smart Nest, Honeywell, or Ecobee thermostat allows you to turn it off through a mobile app, saving you a few dollars on utility bills and lightening the load on your local grid.
But grid responsiveness tools give operators like EnergyHub the ability to turn off people's thermostats on their own, alarming users who sign up for free thermostats without realizing they’ve also enrolled in automated power-down programs.
In California, for example, residential energy use platform OhmConnect launched a program called EndCABlackouts, doling out one million smart thermostats and enrolling users in an energy-saving grid response service. The program reduces users’ energy footprint in one of two ways: By alerting them of peak demand periods, when shutting off their devices on their own can earn them savings, or by doing this on its own, automatically modifying a home’s temperature schedule when utility companies ask them to. In both scenarios, the company sells energy saved back to the grid, takes a cut of its own and delivers cash or prize savings to customers.
The company recently launched the City Energy Challenge to encourage enrollment in smart thermostat programs in San Jose, Oakland, Fresno and Bakersfield, and will award $50,000 in educational scholarships to the city that sees the highest adoption rate. The company boasts saving 1 gigawatt-hour, or 600,000 homes worth of energy through grid-responsiveness tools, preventing six days of blackouts during last August’s heat wave.
Don Whaley, president of OhmConnect’s Texas region, says communication is a crucial part of what the platform offers participants: Text notifications alert users in advance of periods where their devices might power down, at which point they have the option to plan ahead or opt out.
“We'll let you know the hours during which we'll be cutting back demand, so if you want to participate in the event and you're afraid your house might get hot, well it's a good time to go shopping,” Whaley told Motherboard over the phone. “So you’re not caught going, ‘Who the heck turned up my thermostat?’”
On Reddit, some OhmConnect customers said they like being able to reduce their energy impact without the hassle of monitoring their circuit breaker on their own. But others complain that the savings they reap (one-tenth of a penny per watt, users estimate) aren’t worth the sacrifice of shutting off AC during heat waves like the one California is experiencing right now. And others fear that handing power over their home’s devices to a third party could open control of their house to a company or the government.
“Be very careful about agreeing to this,” one Reddit user said of demand response incentive programs Friday. “In Texas during the middle of a heatwave ERCOT has set thermostats to 80 … I will never be agreeing to that in my home.”
These programs raise questions of responsibility for blackouts: Rather than addressing grid reliability issues at the source or reducing fossil fuel emissions from peaker plants by replacing them with renewable alternatives, grid-response programs put the onus on users to live in uncomfortable conditions to avoid shorting the grid.
For English, that was heat that he feared would be unsafe for his sleeping 3-month-old.
“I wouldn’t want anybody else controlling my things for me,” English told KHOU 11.