Friday, July 22, 2022

When "smart" isn't smart: Texas power companies overriding home thermostats

We live in a "smart" age. Smartphones, smart TVs, smart appliances, smart thermostats, smart lights, smart this and smart that.

But when is "smart" not smart?

Homeowners in Texas are discovering that their use of "smart" is infringing on the control they have in their most personal domain - that of their own house.

We've all heard of the problems Texas is having with their power grid over the last eighteen months, right? Back in the deep cold snap in February of last year, when winter storms brought record cold and snow deep into the southern plains, including Oklahoma and Texas. Texas, in particular, experienced rolling blackouts and power outages for days, with up to 5 million people out of power at the same time (11 million experienced outages over the entire period). Outages affected water systems. Catastrophic water damage throughout the state occurred in buildings that froze. It was a huge mess.

In the intervening months, it seems that Texas is still as unprepared as ever. The summer heat is straining the system once again, and power companies have called on customers to reduce electricity usage in order to save power.

However, when some customers don't reduce their usage as requested, the Texas power companies are using "smart" thermostats to force reductions in power usage by changing air conditioning settings inside homes.

A year ago, a Houston Reddit board user noticed something strange was happening in his home. His smart thermostat was changing temperatures, but no one had touched it.

“We noticed since yesterday smart thermostats like Nest or Ecobee are changing temp to 78 automatically,” the person wrote. “We have 8 for sure cases among family and friends.”

Before long, there were 140 comments from Texas users who said they had experienced the same thing.

“This happened to us during the Freeze,” one commenter said. “Every time we tried to warm the house up even a few degrees, it would enter an “energy savings event” and flip all the way back down to 58-60.”

Now, with ERCOT having issued conservation appeals on Monday and Wednesday, smart thermostats are again being remotely adjusted by Texas power companies in order to lower demand during the heat wave. If you’re enrolled in certain energy-saving programs, chances are you may have noticed your thermostat going up a few degrees automatically.

“Across Texas, tens of thousands of customers elect to 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 Oncor), and retail electric providers all encourage Texans to participate as a way to conserve energy and save money on their energy bills,” TXU spokesperson Kyle Weeks told the Star-Telegram. “Demand response programs can automatically adjust the set temperatures on customers’ thermostats 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 TDUs or the retail electric providers). While customers agree to this upfront as an important conservation tool, they can typically override the demand response event depending on their unique needs.”

Despite energy companies assuring customers that they could opt out of temperature adjustments at any time, some smart thermostat users have said that they were unable to do so. A Texan on TikTok said he couldn’t lower the temperature on his Nest thermostat even after the 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. peak demand period.

Participants in this program receive "a one-time $85 bill credit and an annual $30 bill credit", and are supposed to be able to override the power company temperature adjustments, but reports indicate otherwise.

The Houston Chronicle reports, "Despite Texas energy companies' assurances that their customers' participation in remote-access programs is voluntary, some customers say they weren't aware they were signed up without their knowledge."

Houston CBS-affiliate KHOU says the same thing: "Last summer, some customers in Houston complained when they woke up to warm temperatures and found out their thermostat had been remotely adjusted. The customers apparently weren't aware they were enrolled in a remotely-controlled program, telling KHOU they unenrolled as soon as they found out."

Smart devices may make some aspects of life easier - but at what cost? Are you giving up control of your life to a piece of software... or to some bureacratic agency or corporation somewhere far away?

The ease with which your home can be invaded, altered, and surveilled in today's modern world is startling. These devices may seem novel and trendy, but be aware of the potential drawbacks.

One can look at China for an example of a society that has taken technology and software to an extreme point, where their social credit system controls every facet of life and punishes citizens who are deemed to be violating any aspect of the Communist Party way by restricting their freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of information, and freedom of commerce.

You may say, "But that's Communist China. This is America."

Mark my words. We're headed there. It may not be government-led here, at least at first, but the corporate world is moving that direction.

Maybe "smart" isn't so smart after all.


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