Texas Consumers Lose Control Of Their Thermostats, Get Another Crash Course In Value Of Competent Regulators
from the you-don't-own-the-things-you-buy dept
When last we checked in with Texas utility customers, they were literally freezing to death thanks to repeated underinvestment in the state’s utility grid. The Texas utility grid is a unique mish-mash of competitors on its own grid resulting from a massive deregulation effort that didn’t really deliver what was promised. The convoluted mess is overseen by state regulators — detached from federal authority — which have spent a decade ignoring reports calling for a hardening of the grid in the face of climate catastrophe.
Texas consumers have continued to pay higher and higher prices for power. At the same time, state regulators have continued to prioritize the revenues of utility companies over the welfare of the public, and generally (with the occasional exceptions) refused to take the necessary hardening of utility grids in the face of climate change seriously. The results have been what everybody should have expected: an unreliable power grid in the face of both winter and summer extremes created by a destabilizing climate.
During the recent heat wave, some Texans were shocked to wake up to find that their local energy company had turned up their thermostats in the night to save energy. Houston locals weren’t exactly thrilled to wake up sweating in the night to the sound of dehydrated, crying infants. Customers had apparently signed up for a “sweepstakes” where the fine print in a massive, overlong end user agreement gave control of their own AC thermostats over to the local utility:
“The family?s smart thermostat was installed a few years ago as part of a new home security package. Many smart thermostats can be enrolled in a program called “Smart Savers Texas.” It’s operated by a company called EnergyHub.
The agreement states that in exchange for an entry into sweepstakes, electric customers allow them to control their thermostats during periods of high energy demand. EnergyHub?s list of its clients include TXU Energy, CenterPoint and ERCOT.
Groups like the EFF had already raised some concerns about privacy and the loss of consumer control when it comes to the use of “smart meters” (another subject most regulators have been useless on). But that concern largely focused on how the data collected from such devices (which gives a pretty detailed readout of your daily behavior) was being monetized and sold or shared with law enforcement without consumers’ explicit consent. Losing complete control of a device you own (your thermostat) adds an entirely new wrinkle to the battle of maintaining some level of control over the technology you buy.
Of course you wouldn’t need to trick users into giving up control of their thermostats using sweepstakes and mouseprint if the grid was capable of handling fluctuations. And the grid would be able to handle fluctuations if Texas utility regulators hadn’t spent the better part of the last decade fecklessly collapsing in the face of energy sector lobbying pressure time after time:
“Lawmakers and regulators, including the PUC and the industry-friendly Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, have repeatedly ignored, dismissed or watered down efforts to address weaknesses in the state?s sprawling electric grid, which is isolated from the rest of the country.”
It’s all propped up by a bizarre mythology of rugged independence that’s really just obfuscating quite boring and ordinary greed. What the body count has to look like before genuine regulatory reform is implemented or utilities start taking the threat seriously remains to be seen.