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22,000 smart thermostats in Colorado locked over ‘energy emergency,’ sparking outrage

Updated Sep 6th, 2022 5:13PM EDT
smart thermostat
Image: Maridav/Adobe

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Big Brother is controlling your thermostat,” screamed one right-wing headline in recent days in the wake of news from Colorado, that some 22,000 smart thermostats were “locked” on a day when the temperature approached 90 degrees. The reason? Those utility company customers were unable to adjust their thermostat — to, more specifically, set it to a cooler temperature and get the A/C blasting — because of what they were told was an “energy emergency.”

“Temperature locked temporarily during energy emergency,” the message read on those Xcel Energy customers’ smart thermostats. “Due to a rare energy emergency that may affect the local energy grid, your temperature slider has been changed from 8:00 am — 8:00 pm because you enrolled in a Community Energy Savings program.”

Colorado company locks 22,000 smart thermostats

What made this possible was the customers enrolling in a program from the utility company. Specifically, one that offered them incentives in exchange for some degree of remote control over the smart thermostats. Those customers, for example, get a $100 credit at sign-up, and $25 each year.

“It’s a voluntary program,” Emmett Romine, vice president of customer solutions and innovation at Xcel, told local news station KMGH-TV. “Let’s remember that this is something that customers choose to be a part of based on the incentives.”

READ MORE: Scientists warn these US states will soon have heat indices above 125 degrees

It’s a fair point, even if we can quibble over what those customers did or didn’t realize they were getting into. Especially if these are customers on fixed incomes we’re talking about who mainly wanted something to offset the soaring cost of utilities. Nevertheless, why this story has ricocheted across the Internet and sparked outrage on social media is because of the way it plays into two much larger narratives.

The cost of climate change

First, there is an animating force among conservatives that climate change — setting aside any discussion about its effects or provenance — is an opportunity for governments and the private sector to exert more control over people’s lives. Xcel Energy, for example, is an investor-owned utility company, and there it was on a scorching day locking some customers out of adjusting their smart thermostats as a consequence of a spike in energy demand.

Yes, those customers agreed to participate in a program. But it’s the smart thermostat override, itself, that’s the thing causing outrage. Nevermind the why — we’re going to see this more and more, goes the warning on the right. Just you wait.

Different versions of this same scenario, in fact, have materialized around the world in recent days. California, for example, is the first US state to mandate the sale of electric cars, phasing out gas guzzlers. Amid a heatwave, though, the state is also asking Californians at the moment to limit … the charging-up of their electric cars. The government in Spain, meanwhile, launched a crackdown on the use of air conditioning in recent days. Greece is also doing the same thing — all in the name of conserving energy.

thermostat against a sun backdrop
Photo illustration of a thermostat on a hot day. Image source: Günter Albers/Adobe

And that leads to the second broader narrative that this news plays into: Like it or not, we’re going to increasingly find it impossible to hide from the cost of climate change. And, specifically, from its impact on sub-par infrastructure.

Jackson, Mississippi water crisis

The Mississippi city of Jackson — the state’s capital city — is in the midst of a dire water crisis. The city has been under a boil water advisory since July (warning that water should be boiled first, to kill germs, before cooking with it or drinking it). But heavy rainfall in recent days led to a chemical balance at an aged water treatment plant in the city. And, as a result, thousands of people have been unable to obtain clean water from their taps. For almost a week now.

People are waiting in lines, in the heat, for bottled water. “We are constantly paying water bills, and we can’t use the water,” Jackson resident Corean Wheeler told CNN. “We feel like we are living in a third-world country in America.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.