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The fight to save energy by controlling your thermostat (and pool pump)

Letting power companies adjust the appliances of consenting customers could avert blackouts. Some Republicans think it’s government intrusion.

A Nest smart thermostat. (Ben Margot/AP)

When extreme heat settles over Central Texas, the local power company, Austin Energy, uses an unconventional tool to keep the grid from buckling: It taps into the internet to adjust the smart thermostats of 25,300 consenting customers, briefly pushing up temperatures in their homes a couple of degrees as demand on the grid peaks.

Those homes might also get an extra boost of cold air a bit earlier in the day to “precool” them ahead of the electricity rush hour. Other “demand response” technologies let a power company adjust when your water heater fires up or your swimming pool pump switches on.

The programs are emerging as a crucial tool in stabilizing power grids under increasing risk of collapse as they confront decades of underinvestment while extreme weather pushes record demand. The grids will again be strained this week as scorching weather grips the Pacific Northwest and much of the Southeast.

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Yet many power providers are slow to engage such innovations, as a nation accustomed to cheap, abundant energy resists changing its consumption habits, and conservative lawmakers dismiss the programs as dangerous government overreach.

In Texas, the owners of less than 2 percent of the state’s 8.5 million air-conditioning systems are enrolled in initiatives such as the one offered by Austin Energy. If more homeowners signed up statewide, that alone could avert power shortages in Texas, said Michael Webber, an energy scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s not that hard to do,” he said. “But we have this idea that we should be able to eat whatever desserts we want and not go on a diet. There is this machismo around this that has narrowed our options.”

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Energy scholars have concluded in several studies that wide-scale deployment of arguably unobtrusive demand response technologies could reduce electricity use by the equivalent amount of energy it takes to power millions of homes nationwide. The programs are voluntary, customers are paid to participate, and those enrolled are typically free to override adjustments a power company makes at any given time.

Yet the pushback from a Republican Party that has grown increasingly hostile to efficiency measures is intense.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that we are even talking about something like this,” Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) said at a congressional hearing last month during which lawmakers considered a proposal to mandate some new water heaters be equipped with demand response capability. “I think this is better described as ‘capability to remotely control the American people’ technology.”

The uptake is slow in places such as Texas, which the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found has the potential at peak hours to save the amount of electricity equivalent to that produced by a half-dozen power plants.

Equipping the half-million swimming pools in the state with demand response-capable pumps, according to the council, would free up enough electricity to power a couple hundred thousand homes.

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More than 200,000 Californians are cutting their energy use an average of 18 percent during periods when their power company asks for help through a private service called OhmConnect, according to a UCLA study. It pays customers connected to an app to turn off their smart appliances and adjust their thermostats when the grid is stressed. Regulators there say even that state has barely begun to tap the potential energy savings possible through demand response.

Many other states have launched their own efforts, including Florida, where residents can get paid to allow their appliances to be switched off for short spurts.

But while the International Energy Agency urges European countries to expand the use of such tools as the continent faces severe energy shortages, political polarization in the United States clouds the outlook for the technologies here.

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That was clear last month when the House Energy and Commerce Committee considered a bipartisan proposal, supported by industry, to set national standards for making water heaters with demand response capability.

The appliances are seen as having big potential for easing stress on power grids, as the heating of water in the tanks can be recalibrated without much disruption to consumers.

“Sure, we can save energy if utilities can shut appliances on and off, but that’s not what people want,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said at the hearing. “There are very real privacy issues here.”

The ominous warnings, said Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, gloss over how the programs are rooted in consumer choice.

“The customer still gets to decide if they want to participate in the program,” he said in an interview. “If you don’t want the big, bad utility to control your water heater, you don’t sign up.”

A linchpin of the most successful programs are robust regulations and incentives that motivate power companies and their customers to participate. States such as Texas have balked at putting them in place.

“Texas should be the Super Bowl of demand response,” Aaron Berndt, who heads energy industry partnerships for Google, a major provider of smart thermostats, said during a fall hearing of the Texas Public Utilities Commission. “But it is not.”

Texas doesn’t have the appetite it once did for laws that require utilities to aggressively pursue energy savings. After establishing itself as national leader in that area with legislation then-Gov. George W. Bush signed in 1999, it has been outpaced by more than two dozen other states.

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Few GOP-controlled states rank in the top tier of innovators for energy savings, following a decade in which party activists have taken aim at the programs.

The shift began soon after the rise of the tea party, when Upton and other congressional Republicans who championed the industry-endorsed phaseout of incandescent lightbulbs were branded socialists and sellouts on conservative talk radio. The blowback moved the same lawmakers who boasted of the energy savings achieved by the new law to demand its repeal.

The Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to scrap Energy Star, a public-private partnership that enables companies to earn a seal for products that meet high efficiency standards.

Now, as states look to demand response technology to shore up regional power grids, activists on the right are targeting that. A segment last year by Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused power companies of using smart thermostats to raise the temperature in homes without permission, taking advantage of customers who unintentionally enrolled in energy savings programs. The claim was labeled “False” by fact-checking organization PolitiFact.

Carlson’s colleague Laura Ingraham called the technology a tool of “the climate crazies.” One America News contributor Alison Steinberg last month falsely declared in a video that smart thermostats were created by “globalists” to “track us and trace us and monitor every single thing we do.”

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But while the politics in large parts of the country may not be favorable to initiatives that integrate home thermostats and appliances with the needs of the power grid, the reality of the energy economy is forcing conversations about them, nonetheless.

Power grid fragility, propelled by a shortage of energy, has pushed prices up in red and blue states alike. Easing demand is an obvious route to bringing costs back down.

“There is not just a reliability crisis but also an affordability crisis,” said Doug Lewin, a Texas energy consultant. “At some point, the pressure from constituents becomes large enough, and the complaints about the cost of power loud enough that regulators and lawmakers start to look around at what else they can do.”