DennisBeaverJanuary 30, 2017 • By Dennis Beaver

Lovers of governmental conspiracy theories will enjoy today’s story, as we look at what has been an on-going effort—for at least 10 years — by California and energy utilities to take control of your home’s thermostat and much more.

Only this is no theory. It’s for real, and we’ll tell you about in a moment, but first, picture yourself returning to the produce section at a supermarket the day after you purchased a five-pound bag of potatoes — for $1.79 — instead of the 10 pounds requested.

Today, the price at the same display — the same bags of potatoes — is $8.25. You ask the produce manager, “What’s going on? How can this be?” and her response is, “Well, we just got word that the next crop of potatoes months from now will be more expensive, so we are passing that cost on to you, now.”

That’s what we see with petroleum. Prices can change hourly, even though what is in the service station’s tanks today was paid for months ago, as most suppliers hedge their costs, and buy forward, while happily passing along those future prices to us, today. To most consumers, this practice stinks.

Beginning several years ago — over significant objections — Smart Meters were installed by energy utilities across the country. These devices allow charges to vary by time of day, sending information about a customer’s usage to the utility in real time. Rate plans are offered, so that it is possible to significantly reduce your bill by scheduling certain activities — running the dishwasher, or doing a load of laundry — at hours when prices are lower.

“And Smart Meters were nothing in comparison to what’s happening now,” Chatsworth, California-based Tony Albers, Product Manager at Venstar, Inc. told You and the Law.

Venstar is one of the largest U.S. makers of energy-saving smart thermostats with over 8 million sold in the North American market.

“Dennis, your readers need to be aware that if they are going to replace their home heating and air condition system, and the contractor files a building permit, then a new thermostat will likely be required,” Albers points out, adding, “But not just any thermostat.”

As he explained, “California’s Energy Commission is now requiring that thermostats are able to communicate back to the utility which could have the ability of raising or lowering the temperature setting to reduce the homeowner’s energy use.
You read correctly. Your utility could be able to raise the temperature in summer, or lower it in winter, saving energy, and something more.
However, things go well beyond being able to take over your thermostat. It will be more difficult to anticipate how much our energy bills will run, and we should expect to pay more, as Albers describes:

“Much like airlines which contract for jet fuel months out, locking in the price, utilities do the same thing, buying a year out, a certain amount at a set price. If a heat wave comes through, or winter is abnormally cold they need to purchase more energy on the open market, and must float with the price as it goes up and down.

“Utilities do not want to buy a year out. Their wish — granted by California — is to pass along real time pricing to the homeowner. So, you could be on a good rate plan, but if they are suddenly required to purchase more energy, up goes your bill,” he observes.

“To help the homeowner know consumption and cost, new thermostats must be able to display your current price level. If you are paying a 24 cents per KW and your price spikes to 50 cents, the thermostat can be programed to set itself back, and that’s a very good thing.”

Homeowners are legally able to avoid losing control of their thermostat by purchasing one online or from a home improvement store.

“The ability of a utility to take control of your temperature settings is something that has to enabled by the homeowner. It isn’t automatic. So, merely connecting a new thermostat does not allow the utility any access to it,” Albers underscores.

Three years ago this column reviewed programmable, smart, wifi thermostats produced by Venstar and Honeywell, finding both to be excellent products, and since that time we have realized significant energy savings. Many more are on the market today.

In our experience, having the ability from anywhere to adjust the thermostat has been a great convenience and a conversation piece as well. Do your research, watch user videos, and get ready to lower your energy bill.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.