July 13, 2021

Summertime temperatures rose into the high 90s last month across Texas. It wasn’t an unusual heat for Texas in mid-June, but it did trigger the state’s grid operator to issue energy conservation alerts.

The alerts issued by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas asked residents to set their thermostats at 78 degrees in order to help maintain grid reliability. For some Texans, that adjustment was made automatically by their WiFi-enabled thermostats.

Weeks later, Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired a segment on his show focusing on those thermostats.

“In Texas, the power companies have automatically raised the temperature of people’s thermostats in the middle of a heatwave without their permission,” he said. “Woo. That’s not creepy or anything.”

Carlson was referring to an energy conservation technique called demand response, in which electric utilities or third-party grid monitors will remotely adjust residents’ thermostats to reduce energy demand during periods of tight supply. It’s a practice that has been in Texas, and around the nation, for at least two decades. Initially, older thermostats were remotely controlled using a radio paging technology. Today, companies can tap into smart thermostats — like those manufactured by Google Nest, Ecobee or Honeywell — over the internet.

But are these adjustments being made without people’s permission, as Carlson claims?

Prevalence of demand response programs in Texas

There are several electric companies across Texas that offer demand response programs to customers. CPS Energy in San Antonio has had its program in place since 2003, and today the utility issues $85 reimbursements to customers who enroll in its WiFi Thermostat Rewards program.

“During summer peak energy demand days, we may briefly adjust your thermostat settings by a few degrees,” the program states. “We’ll do this only as needed. Peak energy demand days are typically weekdays during the hot summer months. You can opt-out of participating in a peak demand event by manually adjusting your thermostat or through your thermostat’s app.”

Of the San Antonio utility’s 885,000 customers, about 150,000 are enrolled the program. During a period of tight energy supply, the company can adjust 150,000 thermostats to save 128 megawatts of power.

“That’s the size of some smaller power plants,” said Justin Chamberlain, CPS Energy’s manager of energy efficiency and demand response. “It can make a big difference on a peak day.”

The utility also does a fair amount of work to spread awareness ahead of when these periods are going to occur. They’ll send notifications to people’s phones and thermostats, they’ll publish social media posts and make announcements on local news stations.

Austin Energy’s Power Partner program also offers rebates to customers who enroll under the condition that the utility can raise the temperature of their homes between 2 and 4 degrees for a three-hour period during the summer months. Overriding automatic changes only requires a customer to adjust their thermostat back to their desired temperature.

The program has been in place since 2013. Of the utility’s 478,000 residential customers, about 33,000 households have enrolled.

“Austin Energy does not and cannot remotely control devices that are not enrolled in the program,” a utility spokesperson said.

But not all local utilities offer such programs. Customers who are hooked up to utilities that don’t can instead turn to programs offered by third-party providers of demand response management systems.

One popular provider is EnergyHub, which offers a program called Smart Savers Texas that customers sign up for through their thermostat manufacturer.

Under this program, customers are entered into a sweepstakes every time they undergo a demand response event for the chance to win $5,000 towards their energy bills. In exchange, customers agree to allow EnergyHub to trigger temperature adjustments (up to 4 degrees) during demand response periods two to 10 times per summer.

“It’s a really important time to have resources like this, because these really unique weather events require that the grid have some resources it can call on at peak in order to reduce demand,” said Erika Diamond, vice president of customer solutions at EnergyHub.

The program also allows customers to opt-out of any single demand response event or from the program altogether via the thermostat menu or its associated app.

Reading the fine print

So if these types of programs require customers to opt in to these agreements, what is Carlson basing his claim on that these adjustments are occurring without people’s permission?

Carlson’s segment featured a conversation with Chuck DeVore, vice president of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. In the segment, DeVore criticized these programs for enticing customers with rebates or other incentives.

In an interview, DeVore said that while people are typically granting permission to power companies, they might not be fully aware of what they’re agreeing to.

“You do have to sign up for it with the providers — you have to give them permission to do it,” DeVore said. “It’s just that most people in today’s day and age don’t really spend a lot of time reading the small print.”

He pointed to an example out of Galveston, in which a woman who was enrolled in the program was surprised by the automatic thermostat adjustments last month.

“Not everyone’s going to really know what they were signing up for,” he said.

A spokesperson for Carlson’s show also pointed to a KHOU TV article in which one Houston family “woke up sweating” during the mid-June heat. Their thermostat, which was enrolled in EnergyHub’s program, had been unexpectedly kicked up to 78 degrees.

According to KHOU-TV, the thermostat had been installed in the family’s home as part of a new home security package. EnergyHub has partnerships with several home security dealers that include smart thermostats in their installment packages, Diamond said. But it’s unclear why this family didn’t know their device was enrolled in their program.

All of EnergyHub’s customers are enrolled in the program via a sign-up process that is offered on the thermostat’s app or the home security app.

“They are asked, ‘Do you want to join? Here are the terms and conditions,'” Diamond said. “It lets them know that they are legally signing a document telling them what the offer is, and then they complete that process digitally, and they get an email that says you’ve applied to this program. And then they get an email letting them know they’ve either been accepted or rejected.”

Our ruling

Carlson said last month that power companies are automatically raising the temperature of people’s thermostats “without their permission.”

Various demand response programs exist around the state, and thousands of customers have enrolled in them. Although social media posts and local news stations show that some people weren’t fully aware of the terms of the agreement, they had nonetheless granted permission.

We rate this claim False.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for these fact checks here and more of their fact checks here.

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Brandon Mulder writes for PolitiFact Texas and the Austin American-Statesman.
Brandon Mulder

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