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Early results: PG&E customers like controlling thermostats with iPhones

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Updated: As we reported earlier this year, PG&E is the first utility that has been piloting the smart thermostat collaboration between thermostat giant Honeywell (s HON) and energy software startup Opower. And some early results (collected by PG&E) are in: customers like using the smart thermostats and particularly like being able to remotely control the thermostat using their iPhone. However there were some issues in the trial’s recruitment and installation processes.

Remote control of the smart thermostat could prove to be one of the first smart grid applications that is a clear benefit to consumers. One of the major problems with smart meters is that consumers haven’t really seen the direct benefits (beyond savings) of having the smart meter installed at their homes — a lot of the benefits of smart meters are actually for the utility. But remote control of a thermostat is a service that even companies like Comcast and Verizon are looking to sell to their customers.

Honeywell & Opower smart thermstat website
Honeywell & Opower smart thermostat website

For the PG&E trial it’s still early days. So far the pilot program is pretty small, and PG&E is still recruiting customers to it. According to a report issued last week, there are currently 888 customers involved in the smart thermostat trial, but only 276 of those actually had one of the thermostats installed. 421 of the group were chosen to get a smart thermostat installed (the rest were in the control group that didn’t get thermostats), but 145 of those homes didn’t have a successful installation for whatever reason.

The main reason that the thermostat installation didn’t work even for customers that had been chosen, was that the homes were actually found to be ineligible for the program (say, because of a faulty or incompatible HVAC system, or lack of a broadband connection). But often times that ineligibility wasn’t determined until the installer was at the home, which is inefficient. The report says:

The number of treatment group customers without a thermostat installed is a problem that could compromise the precision of energy savings estimates when the impact evaluation is conducted once the trial is fully enrolled.

So for future recruitment the program needs to be tweaked to evaluate if the home is eligible before the installer gets there.

PG&E is looking for more pilot participants for the trial and eventually wants to have 500 homes with the thermostats installed. Future participants need to own their homes, have central heating and cooling, not move for at least a year, have a broadband connection, and live in certain zip codes like in Fresno and Bakersfield.

Honeywell's thermostat with Opower software
Honeywell’s thermostat with Opower software

PG&E isn’t the only utility trialling smart thermostats. Texas energy service provider Reliant is offering smart thermostat services from two Silicon Valley startups Nest and EcoFactor. Startup EnergyHub is also working with cooperative utilities Gibson Electric Membership Corporation and Mid-South Synergy — the EnergyHub service, called Mercury, reduces customers’ heating and cooling consumption at times of peak demand.

One of the earliest utilities to tap smart thermostats for energy management was Nevada utility NV Energy. NV Energy is providing 50,000 customers with a home energy dashboard from Control4 and a programmable thermostat. Another 50,000 are supposed to be signed up down the road.

Utilities can use smart thermostats to collectively and remotely manage home energy consumption at peak times. They can also just use the thermostats for energy efficiency, and for having customers cut their energy bills. Earlier this year I wrote a report on the battle for the smart thermostat, GigaOM Pro (subscription required). Increasingly energy software startups like Opower and Nest are competing over the home smart thermostat.

PG&E is expecting the smart thermostat service to lower its customers’ energy consumption by 5 percent, and potentially by more for customers that use gas for heating and cooling. Update: The Honeywell/Opower thermostat can specifically reduce a home’s heating and cooling by 15 to 25 percent. In comparison Nest says its thermostats can cut 20 to 30 percent of a homes’ heating and cooling energy consumption. So they are about the same in terms of their energy reduction potential. The software is a little bit different though, in that Opower’s thermostat software doesn’t use learning algorithms.

8 Responses to “Early results: PG&E customers like controlling thermostats with iPhones”

  1. PG&E keeps missing the point that Matt noticed. The smart thermostats they are trialing do not benefit from smart meter installation and will not until PG&E forces time of use pricing onto its customers.

    What makes a smart meter “smart” is its support for two-way communication with the power provider and if anything but TOU (and laying off their meter readers) was the goal then PG&E would be introducing smart thermostats that use the smart meter for network communications instead of requiring customer purchased broadband Internet at the home. That would broaden the base of customers who can participate in the 5% use reductions AND make the smart meters start to work for their customers.

  2. Katie,
    What does a smart thermostat have to do with a smart meter or the smart grid? Remotely controlled thermostats (via web and/or mobile) have been available for years and do not require a smart meter of any kind. The meter is nothing more than a device to measure a commodity – kilowatt-hours of electricity. It has nothing to do with the thermostat.

    How do you propose a utility or HVAC contractor examines a HVAC system before arriving at the house? One way would be to have the customer examine the system and report to the utility or Honeywell what type of system they have but this seems even more inefficient than having a professional service person do it.

  3. Have been using my 3M filtrete wifi thermostat for a year now and love it!
    The interface on my iPhone gets better with every update.
    It also cost less than all of the mentioned thermostat.

  4. Based on my experience with the Nest thermostat, I love having control from a smart phone (use it even when in the house to alter thermostat settings), love the information these thermostats collect, but it will be a bear to get them into many homes, as your article mentions.

    Home HVAC systems vary widely in not just the capability of the equipment installed, but the way that equipment was installed. So many homes don’t have enough power running to thermostat points to run smart thermostats, either because their zoning boards are old or cheap, or because the installer didn’t wire things properly at installation.

    Fixing these problems can cost many times the price of a Nest, and it can require multiple visits from HVAC people, many of whom aren’t familiar with the power requirements of the new devices.

    Wifi is another issue, but it’s cheaper to solve.

    Nest has done a good job with designing their product, but the problems that can crop up post-installation will have a whole lot of people tearing their hair out, and this will slow adoption.

    Still, when your plane lands and you can turn the heat on just in time to arrive home to a warm house, it’s great.

    • PGE Customer

      Paul, there are solutions that Honeywell produces that solves many of the installation and compatibility problems you bring up (which are completely valid by the way).

      Fortunately for anyone who is part of a utility-run program like this PG&E one, the installation is done by a professional and is free to the consumer.