Texans discover smart thermostats cranked up remotely amid concerns state’s power grid will buckle again

Lone Star state is one of several being blasted by record-breaking heatwave, testing limits

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Monday 21 June 2021 21:06

Related video: Texas Governor signs bill after state’s power grid failures

Some Texas residents have claimed that their smart thermostats are being turned up remotely as utility providers urge consumers to conserve energy.

Texas is one of several states being blasted by a record-breaking heatwave, which is testing the limits of the power grid as people crank up air-conditioning units to cope with the soaring temperatures. The Texas power grid buckled under a different sort of emergency in February when a freak deep freeze led to shut-offs which left dozens dead.

Earlier this month the main electric power grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), issued a conservation alert to avert an emergency.

Now, some people with smart thermostats are reporting that their connected devices are being adjusted remotely.

Brandon English, of Houston, told WFAA this weekend that thermostat in his home rose to 78 degrees Fahrenheit after his wife had turned it down so she and their daughters could take a nap.

“Was my daughter at the point of overheating?” Mr English told the news outlet. “She’s three months old. They dehydrate very quickly.”

His wife subsequently received a phone alert informing her that their thermostat was remotely adjusted during a three-hour energy-saving event.

In Galveston, another family told Click2Houston that they had a similar experience of the thermostat being adjusted from outside the home.

It appears that the homeowners’ thermostats were enrolled in the “Smart Savers Texas” programme run by EnergyHub. In exchange for being entered into sweepstakes, customers allow the company to take some control of their connected thermostats during periods of peak demand.

Erika Diamond, a vice president at EnergyHub, said in a statement to The Independent that customers typically get an offer to join the programme, and that doing so helps support the grid’s reliability by “reducing energy use when the grid needs it most”.

“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. Every participant actively agrees to the terms of the programme and can opt out of a demand response event at any time,” she added.

“The ability to reduce energy consumption is critical to managing the grid, in Texas and nationwide.”

A similar programme run by CPS Energy, which serves San Antonio, allows customers to get an $85 bill credit if they enrol certain WiFi thermostats and a $30 annual credit at the end of the summer. Customers can also opt out of this programme whenever they wish.

This month ERCOT set a new June record for electricity demand, and asked consumers to dial back their usage.

This included setting thermostats to 78F or higher. “Every degree of cooling increases your energy use by six to eight per cent,” it noted. They also asked consumers to turn off lights, pool pumps and avoid large appliances like ovens, washing machines and dryers.

Texas is the only state to have a power grid which remains completely within its borders. That exempts the ERCOT grid from federal regulation, but also isolates it from access to supplemental power from the US’s other power grids.

ERCOT officials had assured Texans in May that its latest assessment showed the grid was expected to provide sufficient power to meet peak summer demand. Still, it expected record-breaking demand for electric power that could mean tight supply reserve margins.

Despite experts who say Texas’ power grid remains vulnerable, Republican Governor Greg Abbott declared that new reforms this month “fix all of the flaws” that caused a deadly February winter blackout.

More than four million people lost power when temperatures plunged into single digits over Valentine’s Day’s weekend, icing power generators and buckling the state’s electric grid. State officials say they have confirmed at least 151 deaths blamed on the freeze and resulting outages, but the real toll is believed to be higher.

Texas lawmakers made significant changes during the recent legislative session that include mandates to “weatherize” power plants for extreme temperatures and new processes to avert communication failures.

However, energy experts have said the reforms do not go far enough to assure a similar catastrophe won’t happen again.

AP contributed to this report

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