Texas’s power grid is unpleasantly surprising its users again. After last winter’s storm disabled parts of the grid for several days, causing potentially hundreds of deaths, a summer heat wave is once again threatening the grid. One potential solution Texas power companies have found is to turn up the temperature on some customers’ smart thermostats. Problem is, some of those customers weren’t aware that their power company could and would do such a thing — until their homes got uncomfortably warm.
One Houston family told a local news affiliate that their smart thermostat was turned up to 78 degrees with seemingly no notice other than a text sent after the fact. When they enrolled in a program called “Smart Savers Texas” — entering them in a sweepstakes to win up to $5,000 off their energy bills for the next year — these users didn’t realize that this also gave the power company permission to adjust their thermostat during high demand periods, like heat waves.
The idea of a power company turning up your thermostat like a stereotypical electricity-bill-conscious dad might seem dystopian, but it’s also fairly common. There are programs like Smart Savers Texas all over the country, from California to New England. The idea behind them is to decrease power consumption in order to alleviate stress on the electrical grid and avoid brownouts. Since customers aren’t likely to volunteer to use less of the power they pay for when they need it most, these programs give them an incentive and the means to do so easily (by proxy). Some programs provide better incentives than others. When it launched in 2011, Philadelphia’s Smart A/C Saver program gave participants a $120 bill credit (apparently this was too generous, as it was reduced to $40 in subsequent years). But Smart Savers Texas only offers customers the chance to win free power for a year, and apparently it didn’t make its terms very clear.
But sometimes, the program’s terms were a little too good for customers. New York City’s Smart AC Program, which gave participants smart plugs and gift cards, ended in 2020 because, Con Edison said, it wasn’t cost-effective. Philadelphia’s PECO ended its similar program, with the $40 bill discount, last fall.
Power companies usually do these programs in partnerships with the tech companies that provide the devices. Smart Savers Texas is administered by a company called EnergyHub and is available through smart thermostats made by Alarm.com, Lux, Google’s Nest, Radio Thermostat, Sensi, Vivint, and ecobee.
Google’s Nest even has its own “Rush Hour Rewards” program available through participating power companies. The rewards vary. In one New York zip code, for instance, ConEd offers “up to” $85 if you enroll in the program, while National Grid is only giving out a $25 gift card. Some power companies also offer discounts on the smart thermostats themselves. And Google seems to hope there’s room to expand its Rush Hour Rewards beyond just temperature, too: Nest’s head of energy partnerships said in April that “in the future, your electric vehicle or even your whole home may be able to join in.”
These programs are currently opt in, unlike the aforementioned stereotypical electricity-bill-conscious dad. But if the Texas example is anything to go by, there are some people who didn’t realize what they were getting into. If you’re afraid you might be one of them and you don’t want to be, now would be a good time to check with your power company to make sure you aren’t, especially if you have a smart thermostat.
It’s also a good reminder to always check the fine print, especially if you’re being offered something for what appears to be nothing in return. There’s always a catch.