Thinking Thermostats: Smart Options for Utilities

Smart thermostats are the future for utility-initiated demand response (DR) programs. Investor-owned utilities have been on the leading edge of this trend, but cooperative and municipal utilities are accelerating research into the role of smart thermostats can play in managing demand. With decades of experience using load control, public power utilities already have plenty of insights about how effective thermostat programs can be.

Smart thermostats communicate using one of two options. Some thermostats are equipped with RF Mesh radios to directly access the utility AMI network. Other smart thermostats can use a consumer’s Wi-Fi connection, which still provides utilities with the necessary access to use the device in demand response events. Comparing these options shows that both approaches offer similar benefits.

Verification of Load Savings

If the utility can access thermostat information, it can confirm that load has been shed during a demand response event. Smart thermostats that are part of the metering mesh network provide confirmation on their entry into a demand response event, validating that load savings have occurred. Thermostats communicating over Wi-Fi can provide confirmation of load reduction as well, via third-party cloud services. In this way, both device types allow utilities confirmation of the effectiveness of their demand response commands. This is a significant improvement over many legacy demand response systems.

Improving Consumer Reach and Access

A utility-accessible smart thermostat can bridge the competing interests between consumer and utility control of the HVAC system. Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats are often preferred by consumers based on features and aesthetics. Support for devices consumers already like and own can make DR enrollment efforts easier for utilities. On the other hand, smart thermostats that directly connect to the AMI network offer consumers the same features to control temperature setpoints, HVAC configuration and scheduling. Both thermostat options provide remote access through mobile apps, which also allows the consumer to manage schedules of load control switches on other appliances.

Utility Access Benefits

Wi-Fi thermostats provide new access points for a utility to expand the reach of demand response in a greater number of homes. Because consumers self-install Wi-Fi thermostats, utilities have the advantage of not needing to schedule an installation appointment. In other words, the consumer can choose from a wide range of devices and the utility has more load available to control. However, the verification of savings with a Wi-Fi thermostat may be reduced when compared with smart thermostats that function over the mesh network, and there is also dependency on the reliability of the consumer’s Wi-Fi connection.

Mesh-equipped thermostats provide greater access because they communicate on the utility-controlled communication network. However, there are additional considerations with scheduling installation, maintenance and consumer perception. In this case, utilities may find that the existing level of engagement with the utility will influence a consumer’s thermostat preference.

As adoption of smart thermostats continues to increase, these devices create a favorable circumstance for utilities to improve load management efforts and maintain the flexibility of the grid.

In the coming weeks, we’ll look at how utilities can create successful business cases for smart thermostat programs. In the meantime, you can learn how smart thermostats have begun to modify consumer engagement and participation in energy management here.


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