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Your thermostat may be plotting against you

Welcome to 2021.

Amid [recent] sweltering temperatures in Houston, the agency that operates the state’s power grid asked residents to cut back on how much electricity they used to help it meet demand. That’s how some people apparently learned the hard way that their “smart thermostats” were programmed to rise in their homes when grid conditions got tight.

A user posting on the Reddit page for discussions about Houston wrote of knowing eight people with thermostats that bumped up automatically and made their homes less cool — sparking a conversation about how and why this happens. The concerns were first reported by KHOU.

Turns out, utility customers can opt in to programs that automatically adjust their thermostats when demand is high and grid capacity is strained. Those people can also opt out. Some, it seemed, were caught unawares.

One user wrote of being automatically enrolled in a program and then waiting months while trying to get out of it. Another reported sending an email to get removed from the service.

A third chastised them all: “This is what happens when you don’t read the contract.”

A software provider called EnergyHub works with thermostat manufacturers to run such programs. No one is enrolled without their consent, said Erika Diamond, the company’s vice president for customer solutions.

The idea is to reduce energy load when the grid is stressed, such as during an extreme weather event, Diamond said. Temperatures at George Bush Intercontinental Airport hit at least 95 degrees every day from June 11 through June 16.

I’m sure this was somewhere in your user agreement, which I know we all read thoroughly. One could easily argue that this is a net benefit for all, as the modest reduction in A/C that everyone affected by this would experience would save energy and maybe avoid some blackouts. It’s almost certainly more effective than asking people to voluntarily dial it back, as some won’t do it and others won’t be aware you’re asking. But it would be better if people were generally aware of this, even if it meant more of them opted out or manually overrode the auto-adjustment as they can do, if only to prevent the inevitable conspiracy theories and overall mistrust that a lack of awareness will spawn. At least it’s mostly been not-so-hot since then, so this has been less of an issue, but obviously we can’t just count on that. Reform Austin and Mother Jones have more.

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3 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    I would think that the party of the ‘green new deal’ would not only support this, but want to make it mandatory for all home and business owners to have these kinds of remote access thermostats. I mean, if we only have, what, maybe 10 years left before Sandy Cortez’ prescient prediction that the world will end if we don’t stop using fossil fuels, then physically stopping people from using more energy than the state feels is appropriate should certainly be in the wheel house of leftists.

    Personally, I’m happy with my ‘dumb’ thermostats. I bump my A/C’s up when it’s blazing hot outside, not because I want to save the planet, but because I don’t want to kill my A/C units by running them so hard they overheat and die, at the most inopportune time.

  2. Jason Hochman says:

    The house I got has a smart thermostat but it is not connected to any remote system. I adjust it manually. I usually have my AC set at 79 or 80. Not being all righteous here, but my Green New Lifestyle is greener than average, other than for example, the Amish or the Unabomber or the homeless.

  3. policywonqueria says:

    DEMAND-RESPONSE ON THE HUMAN CONSUMER SIDE

    Unfortunately, vast swaths of ordinary Texans are not very enlightened on this topic, even when they are not under an ERCOT-imposed power shutoff for the greater good of the grid.

    The dynamic (automatic) remote thermostat adjustment is a very good approach to manage impending shortages, but the electricity generationg industry is actually not very hot on it. Why? Because this also mitigates spikes in whole-sale prices independent of the availablity of supply on the producer side. And the more widespread the use, the bigger would be the impact.

    Incidentally, if Griddy had had a larger market share, it would have made a positive contribution during the winter strom crisis, because many of its customers would have responded to the extreme prices by reducing consumption to a minimum in response to real-time or close-enough-in-time text or email alerts.

    FROST, HEAT, AND GREED

    Wholesale “inflation” by factors, not just measly percentage points, is good for the generators/sellers. It makes them much more money, especially when natural gas — which drives the input-side costs of running the dominant power plants in the mix — isn’t also in supply-crunch conditions. High wholesale prices can greatly widen the profit margin for generators because the operating costs won’t be much different if gas prices remain flat. And increased demand drives up the price. So why would producers want consumer to cut back? Or conserve energy, generally speaking?

    “Tight grid conditions” are something for us human needs consumers to be concerned about, not the generators.

    It’s good for business because the tightness drives up the price in the real-time market, and presumably in the day-ahead market too, to the extent the “tightness” can be anticipated (or manufactured with coordinated unexplained supposedly “forced” outages, or some combination of both). A key factor for predicting demand is the heat (or cold, in the wintertime). ERCOT, of course, has to do the brinkmanship and make sure that the grid doesn’t collapse, which would cut the flow of money along with the electrons.

    See:

    Texas power prices briefly soar to $9,000/MWh as heat wave bakes state. REUTERS (Aug. 14, 2019) (“Spot power prices in Texas for Wednesday almost tripled after electricity demand hit record highs earlier this week and real-time prices briefly soared to $9,000 per megawatt hour as consumers cranked up air conditioners to escape a brutal heat wave.”) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-texas-power-demand/texas-power-prices-briefly-soar-to-9000-mwh-as-heat-wave-bakes-state-idUSKCN1V41HV

    That was 2 years ago. For most recent episode of electricity surge pricing, you can google:

    US West ERCOT power prices spike as temperatures soar. S&P Global (June 11, 2021) (ERCOT prices follows high temperatures).

    And for the previous current-year ERCOT-advisory episode, check out this:

    Joe Galli, Energy prices spike Tuesday during unexpected high temperatures across the state. FOX 29 SAN ANTONIO (Apr. 14, 2021).

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