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Oakland, San Jose Mayors Urge Residents To Take Part In Energy Savings Challenge; Smart Thermostats Given Away

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) – The mayors of Oakland and San Jose are among those who have partnered with a startup in an effort to challenge residents to save energy this summer.

OhmConnect, based in Oakland, is giving away 100,000 smart home thermostats in advance of the warm summer weather, with the hope of reducing demand on the state's energy grid. Customers will then allow the company to control the devices remotely, most likely on hot days when homes all across the region turn on air conditioning to cool their homes.

"So what we do with smart thermostats is actually pretty interesting. We adjust it slightly, and quietly in the background, with your permission. You can always go override it. But in the background it's slight changes. And what that does is a little bit of change in temperature, a little bit on that smart device, and that smart thermostat added up over thousands and hundreds of thousands of people across the state, means that we're saving megawatts of energy," CEO Cisco DeVries told KPIX 5.

Customers will get an alert on their smartphone, regarding "OhmHours", typically a one-hour window in the afternoon or evening, on warm days when electricity demand spikes. To meet the assigned usage goals, users can opt to delay use of heavy appliances like clothes dryers or electric car chargers. Customers then earn points, which can be redeemed for cash, or gift cards at local merchants.

On high demand days, California's grid managers and utility operators oftentimes trigger an emergency activation of coal or natural gas powered plants, which are expensive and emit greenhouse gases.

"And we get paid by the state grid managers and by the utilities for those reductions, because they're able to pay us instead of having to pay for power from a power plant," said DeVries.

The California Energy Commission was an early financial backer, providing at least $7 million in funding in recent years. The CEC also provided the grant for this latest giveaway of smart thermostats.

Commissioner Andrew MacAllister says smart devices have finally allowed public entities to control demand, dubbed "load flexibility."

"We know that load flexibility's time has arrived. And so the ability to mobilize, lots of small loads and allow customers to opt in to actually manipulate or allow those loads to be part of the solution and changing their energy consumption in response to what the grid needs to save on a voluntary basis, that is one of the resources that we're going to be scaling up," said MacAllister.

Four cities participated in Wednesday's "OhmConnect City Energy Challenge": San Jose, Oakland, Fresno, and Bakersfield. Each city has been allotted 25,000 free smart thermostats. The city with the most new customers will be awarded an additional $50,000 in scholarships.

"The cleanest energy is the energy we don't use," said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.

"Not only can you save the planet, save your pocketbook, but also advance environmental justice," said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

The City of Fresno has the most OhmConnect customers in the state, with 5% of its households with smart thermostats controlled by the company. Fresno had 36 days of high temperatures over 100 degrees in the summer of 2020.

"Last year there was one day in August, where our city residents made $89,000 in a single day as a result of energy savings through OhmConnect," said Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer. "It is good to be able to not only save power on the grid, but to get paid while doing it."

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