Utility customers can get rebates on smart thermostats

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Starting this month, customers of two Wisconsin utilities will be able to save money on smart thermostats. For customers of We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service Corp., the Focus on Energy program is offering rebates of $100 apiece on the smart thermostats.

A new generation of thermostats has pushed the technology far beyond what Warren Johnson, founder of Johnson Controls Inc., invented at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the 1880s.

The new thermostats not only communicate with smartphones, but they also use sensors or other digital tools to "learn" about when folks are at home and when they're not.

That knowledge, in turn, helps the device adjust the temperature settings based on its own knowledge of the whereabouts of the homeowners.

"Essentially, a smarter thermostat can 'learn' your habits and comfort needs and make those adjustments automatically," said Neil Strother, who wrote a recent report on them for the consulting firm Navigant Research.

With a $100 rebate, the incentive will cut the price tag roughly in half for anyone eligible to buy one, said Tamara Sondgeroth, operations manager with the state Focus on Energy program.

"This is one of the biggest incentives we've done on the residential side, and it's the biggest change we've had in a long time," she said. "We're really looking forward to being able to see some great savings from this and get feedback from our customers so that hopefully next year, we'll be able to offer it statewide."

Focus managers asked the state Public Service Commission to approve $2.3 million on a smart-thermostat rebate project, but the PSC decided to launch the thermostat rebates on a pilot basis and authorized Focus on Energy to spend half that amount. During the pilot period this year, electric or natural gas customers of Milwaukee-based We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service Corp. of Green Bay are eligible for the rebates, said Sondgeroth.

Thermostats that qualify for the rebate include the Nest thermostat made by a subsidiary of Google as well as "learning" thermostats made by Honeywell, Ecobee and EnergyHub.

Strother, principal research analyst at Navigant Research, said the technology is geared toward a smarter home and making customers more aware of how their home is consuming energy.

"More engaged customers usually think about how much they're consuming and how they're consuming energy," he said. "This brings new tools and communications into the hands of customers, with the goal of being more efficient."

That efficiency can translate into savings, which Focus projects can reach $170 a year — meaning a less than two-year payback for customers who install the devices.

A report last fall by Navigant projects that global shipments of smart thermostats will exceed 19 million by 2023, up from less than 1 million in 2014. That translates to $2.3 billion in revenue in 2023, up from $146.9 million in 2014.

Focus is introducing the program in Wisconsin after its partner, the energy-efficiency firm CLEAResult, saw significant savings on heating and cooling costs compared with a manual thermostat and also saw savings compared with programmable thermostats.

However, the smart thermostats aren't for everyone. For example, people who have predictable times away from the house but aren't technophiles might find a programmable thermostat, which generally cost about $50, to be more suited for them than a more costly smart thermostat, Sondgeroth said. Likewise, a home where one parent works from home or is a stay-at-home mom might not find the technology useful, she said.

"You need to think about is this the right thing for you?" Sondgeroth said. "It's a cool new technology. It's something that people are interested in, and it's definitely for the tech-savvy."

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