California's Power Grids Are Already Straining. Here's How Smart Thermostats Can Help

It's going to be a hot summer. But one million smart thermostats might do the trick.
Derya Ozdemir

One of this year’s first significant heatwaves has blanketed the West: Texas’ electric grid operator is urging Texans to save energy “as much as possible” through Friday, as rising demand puts pressure on the state’s supply, and similar fears have begun to emerge in California as well, reminding residents of 2020, when a heatwave in August pushed air-conditioner use, causing an energy shortage that resulted in rolling power outages.

It appears that California, and other states in the West, are getting an early taste of summer, something authorities had been dreading all year. According to a report by Bloomberg Green, the heat will peak Thursday and Friday, with temperatures in Sacramento predicted to reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius).

The triple-digit temperatures can send electricity consumption skyrocketing, so residents in California have been advised to reduce their electricity use on Thursday evening by power grid managers who want to avoid rolling blackouts. They believe that voluntary conservation can "offset a possible shortfall of about 300 megawatts," and that they're more prepared than last summer. To give you an idea, 1 megawatt powers about 750 to 1,000 homes, according to California Independent System Operator (CISO).

"We’re here today with our first sense of potential supply shortfalls for tomorrow. At this point, they’re looking rather modest, but we have to stay ahead of them," Elliot Mainzer, CEO of the CISO, which operates the majority of the state's grid, explained late Wednesday. "We will be doing everything we can across the next 24 hours to keep the lights on." 

Why is this happening?

Let's break down the situation: California is the most populated state in the U.S., has the largest economy, and is second only to Texas in terms of overall energy consumption.

When it comes to green energy, California is doing good; its in-state electricity net generation from all renewable resources combined, including hydroelectric power and small-scale, customer-sited solar generation, was larger than any other state in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Moreover, California is the top generator of power from solar, geothermal, and biomass energy in the United States.

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In its clean-energy transition, however, extreme weather brought on by climate change is not doing it any favors. For example, states are closing coal and gas-fired power plants, but they aren't replacing them fast enough to keep up with the unrelenting climate. Further, the region's current power infrastructure is extremely vulnerable to wildfires. As wildfires put transmission lines in jeopardy, drought depletes once-abundant hydroelectric resources, and heatwaves increase demand.

How will California hold up this year?

Following last summer's outages, California is putting about 1,500 megawatts of batteries into the grid to ward off the worst of this summer. It has also postponed the closure of many gas plants and raised the price cap on power trades to promote imports in case outside supplies are needed and available. However, the timeline is tight, and as state officials scramble to find additional energy resources to add to the grid, businesses such as OhmConnect, a customer-response program for residential energy use, are announcing new campaigns.

On June 15, OhmConnect unveiled its new "EndCABlackouts" initiative, which will provide free smart thermostats to the first 1 million California residents to help prevent blackouts this summer.

Back in August 2020, OhmConnect's network of energy savers helped to reduce California blackouts by conserving roughly 1GWh of energy -- which is the same as pulling 600,000 households off the grid for one hour. In the end, this effort was successful in preventing six more days of blackouts. Moreover, it earned them $1.3 million in cash and prizes, which means this not only helps you save electricity, but it pays you to use less. 

But how? OhmConnect-connected smart thermostats sync energy use across households and act as a virtual power plant, allowing Californians to cut their collective electricity consumption. At periods of peak energy usage, adjusting thermostats by a few degrees may save the grid 680 MW. According to a press release, with 1 million smart thermostats, residents will be able to "save four times more energy to help prevent blackouts during what experts say will be the hottest summer on record."

A smart thermostat or other device is not required to participate, since the first 1 million households that sign up, qualify, and connect to the platform will receive a smart thermostat of their choice or two free smart plugs and $25. If you want to learn more about OhmConnect's City Energy Challenge, which runs through September 30, you can do so here.

Excessive heat warnings cover most of California and spread through parts of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, but OhmConnect is only available in California for now. In the meantime, residents are advised to retreat to air conditioning if possible due to dangerously hot temperatures, check on neighbors, never leave anyone unattended in a car, and stay safe.

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