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A utility company in Colorado has locked thousands of customers out of their smart thermostats

Thousands of Colorado residents unplugged from their smart thermostats during the hot temperatures last week in an effort to prevent excessive electricity demand on the grid.

About 22,000 Xcel customers lost control of their smart thermostats for hours on Aug. 30. Denver7 News Reports. That sparked a backlash on social media, with some saying temperatures in their homes reached 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Outdoor temperatures soared into the 90s in parts of Colorado that day, while much of the western US had scorching heat.

All affected customers are enrolled in an energy-savings program called AC Rewards, which is intended to reduce stress on the power grid during heatwaves. Xcel can adjust those customers’ smart thermostats when demand is too high. Xcel offers a one-time $100 credit on electricity bills after signing up and $25 a year for participation.

When a utility adjusts a customer’s thermostat, the customer usually has the option to opt out. But, “in rare cases, system emergencies may cause a control event that cannot be overridden,” the company said on its website.

Last week marked the first time in the six years since the program began that Xcel customers were prevented from exceeding their adjustments. Denver 7. High temperatures, rising electricity demand for air conditioners and unexpected outages all contributed to last week’s fuel emergency, Xcel Vice President Emmett Romine said. Denver 7. Xcel did not immediately respond to a press inquiry from to the edge.

Extreme heat is straining power grids across much of the western US during a prolonged heatwave that began last week and is expected to last well into this week. California’s grid operator is urging residents to conserve energy over the next few days to avoid blackouts.

Americans are experiencing more power outages than in the past, in part due to extreme weather. 2020 is a record year for power outages in the US. Last year’s punishing summer heat in Texas prompted a similar backlash from residents when utilities set consumers’ smart thermostats to higher temperatures to limit electricity demand.

Such programs are part of a strategy called demand response, which helps power grids become more resilient to extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and severe as global temperatures rise. Energy providers always maintain a precarious balance between supply and demand, which can quickly lead to power outages at demand peaks. Demand response smooths out those peaks, which typically increase when heatwaves increase demand for electricity for air conditioning. So some customers may find their thermostats are set to higher temperatures than they expected, which is supposed to help their families and their neighbors stay powered on.

If smart thermostats keep homes at dangerously high temperatures, there’s a risk with that strategy. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures — especially at night when people are sleeping indoors — can lead to heat-related illness and even death. Heat spells kill more people in the US than any other weather-related disaster.

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