HOUSTON – Smart thermostats make it easy for you to adjust the temperature in your home, even when you’re not there. But you may also be giving others access to change your settings at any time without notice. KPRC 2 Investigates looked into what you need to know about who can control your smart thermostat and when.
Can your electric provider change the temperature in your home?
We don’t know exactly how many people have volunteered to let their electric providers adjust their thermostats. We asked CenterPoint, ERCOT and several electric providers, but none would give us total counts. What we do know is that some customers may not even realize they’ve given their electric company that permission.
Rick O’Loughlin relies on fans to keep his Bear Creek home cool. He does his part to conserve energy by setting his thermostat to a warm 80 degrees.
“As long as I keep the air moving, I’m comfortable,” said O’Loughlin.
But one day in May he noticed a difference and so did his four-legged roommates.
“The dogs came in and they sat for a minute. They were still panting. And I’m sweating,” O’Loughlin explains.
When O’Loughlin checked his thermostat it was set at 84 degrees. He adjusted it back down and then it went back up... the same day and on another day when O’Loughlin wasn’t even home.
“And I went, ‘This is crazy,’” he said.
A call to his retail electric provider TriEagle Energy revealed he agreed to let the company adjust his thermostat when he installed a free smart thermostat they mailed him last year.
“I do like the idea of a smart house and I thought, ‘Oh, a smart thermostat. What a great thing.’ Anywhere in the world I can go and see what the temperature is in the house, I can control it,” he said.
O’Loughlin didn’t know TriEagle could also control it. He did later admit he should have read the fine print. When our KPRC 2 Investigates team started asking questions we learned if you do sign up for any electric provider’s demand response program, they can adjust your thermostat any time even if there are no energy alerts from ERCOT.
ERCOT told us it hasn’t issued an energy alert day since February of 2021 but a TriEagle representative told us the company can issue them independently as frequently as they want and TriEagle has curtailed the electricity of its customers “often” this year.
“It was hot, muggy. I mean, obviously the humidity was coming in,” said O’Loughlin. “It was pretty miserable.”
When O’Loughlin called TriEagle they couldn’t tell him or us how the company decides to adjust thermostats or by how many degrees but TriEagle said customers can opt out of its demand response program at any time. O’Loughlin did opt out of the program.
Something else we learned: electric providers receive financial incentives for every kilowatt of electricity they are able to curtail through these demand response programs. TriEagle wouldn’t tell us how much it makes when it adjusts customer’s thermostats even when ERCOT and Centerpoint aren’t asking us to conserve energy. You can see more from the Texas energy code here.
More information on Demand Response Programs
Full TriEagle statement:
“Across Texas, tens of thousands of customers participate in what are known as Demand Response Programs that help to reduce the strain on Texas’ grid in extreme weather. ERCOT, the TDUs (Transmission and Distribution Utility - like CenterPoint), and retail electric providers all encourage Texans to participate as a way to conserve energy and save money on their energy bills. TriEagle Energy participates by offering customers select energy plans with a Smart Thermostat at no additional cost. These Smart Thermostats allow customers to control their thermostat remotely and apply energy-saving routines and can also be used to reduce demand during times of grid constraints. When customers purchase one of these plans from TriEagle, they also agree to participate in our demand response program, which will automatically adjust their thermostat’s set temperature by a few degrees for a short time, normally less than an hour, when the grid sees incremental stress (this can be called by ERCOT, the TDU’s or the retail electric providers). While customers agree to this upfront as an important conservation tool, they can always override the demand response event depending on their unique needs each day, with no penalties.”
Full CenterPoint statement:
“Our Residential Load Management program is implemented through the Public Utility Commission of Texas approved energy efficiency program portfolio governed by 16 TAC § 25.181. Under this program, CenterPoint Energy works directly with companies, called program sponsors, who are incentivized to aggregate residential customers for the purpose of peak demand reduction. Program sponsors can be retail electric providers, alarm service providers, load management aggregators, energy consultants and other entities. Participating program sponsors aggregate residential customers who agree to participate in a load curtailment event, and the program sponsors are compensated at a “per kW rate” for each kW of verified demand reduction that occurs during a load curtailment event.
Load curtailment events may occur initiated by CenterPoint Energy in two ways:
1. In response to an Electric Reliability Council of Texas issued emergency energy alert (EEA) level 2 notification or if the company anticipates that an EEA level 2 notification will be issued. A maximum of five emergency events may be called and events may last from one to four hours.
2. The company initiates a test event to evaluate participant readiness and validate demand savings. Two test events will be initiated by CenterPoint Energy and each event may last from one to four hours.
CenterPoint Energy will only initiate these curtailment events during the Summer Peak Period of June 1, 2022 - September 30, 2022, Monday through Friday from 1:00 pm - 7:00 pm, excluding federal holidays.
In addition, when a curtailment event is called, CenterPoint Energy notifies the participating program sponsors who have the responsibility of initiating curtailment with the residential customers they have enrolled in the program. CenterPoint Energy does not control thermostats or any equipment at the homes of residential customers. The frequency and duration of thermostat setbacks and the degree of adjustment are based on the agreement between the program sponsors and their enrolled customers.”
More information from ERCOT
In reference to questions about this specific case, ERCOT says they asked Texans to consider reducing their electricity usage in May, but that was not an “Emergency Alert Day” where it asked retail electric providers to curtail customers’ usage.
The Public Utility Commission weighs in
When we reached out to the PUC to find out how many Texas electric customers have opted in to demand response programs, a spokesman sent us this statement:
“In 2021, 74,694 residential customers were enrolled in three Investor-Owned Utility (IOU) demand response smart thermostat programs. The three were CenterPoint, El Paso Electric and Oncor. The PUCT does not collect or keep data on how many customers participate in these programs through Retail Electric Providers.
There are no rules on smart thermostats but there is a rule for the IOUs’ energy efficiency programs of which the demand response programs are a part (16 TAC 25.181). The IOUs are free to decide whether to offer residential demand response programs. If they do, they must follow the framework for programs laid out by the rule.”