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The Nest Learning Thermostat is shown following a news conference in San Francisco. An Appalachian Power Co. program called Bring Your Own Thermostat would offer customers money each month to let the utility control a smart thermostat like the Nest to conserve electricity during peak times.

Appalachian Power Co. has launched a new program in Virginia that gives customers cash in exchange for allowing the company to tap into their internet-connected thermostats.

The program, known across the energy industry as Bring Your Own Thermostat, is worth $50 at signup, plus $5 per month from May to September.

In exchange, customers must grant AEP wireless access to thermostats during peak hours so the company can turn up the temperature any time the power grid gets overloaded.

AEP spokesman John Shepelwich said peak hours change, but typically fall between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. That’s when most people get home from work, turn on the air conditioning, start cooking dinner and maybe throw a load of laundry in the wash.

If AEP realizes it needs to conserve energy, it sends a signal out to all the thermostats in the BYOT program. The fans keep running to circulate air, but the cooling function stops — dramatically reducing energy usage.

The program isn’t a first of its kind, but this year is the first time it has been offered in Virginia through AEP. So far about 360 customers are signed up, according to Shepelwich.

It’s part of a larger trend around smart home devices, which connect to the internet and enable new functionalities. There are smart lights that turn off at scheduled times, cameras that send motion detection alerts and robotic vacuum cleaners that can be activated from a smartphone.

And now there are thermostats that talk to power companies in exchange for cash.

AEP was required to get permission from the State Corporation Commission before launching the program. That process began in 2017 and it was deemed to be in the public interest the following year. The SCC approved the program for three years, but capped the cost at $3 million.

“We’ve been making the case that this energy efficiency attitude, the opportunity to cut demand in some cases, is as important as building new generation,” Shepelwich said.

So far this season, he said the shutoff function was triggered seven times, each for about two hours.

He added that there isn’t an override option for customers once they’re enrolled. If the company needs to conserve power, all those in the program are expected to participate.

Customers can, however, leave the program anytime – though Shepelwich said they may need to pay back some of the signup bonus.

Those with multiple air conditioning units can double their incentive by signing up both.

Right now, a slew of thermostats from Nest, Ecobee and Honeywell are eligible for the program. The cheapest options cost about $80.

The BYOT program adds on top of other initiatives by AEP to try to curb energy usage, especially during peak hours.

For those who don’t have a smart thermostat, the company launched the Residential Peak Reduction Program a couple years ago. It works similar to the BYOT, but AEP installs its own receiver on the outside air conditioning unit.

The receiver gives the company wireless access to the unit, even if it’s not run by an internet-connected thermostat.

That program pays customers $8 per month from May to September. Across AEP’s service area in Virginia, more than 5,000 customers are signed up for the Residential Peak Reduction Program.

Shepelwich said he hasn’t heard much in the way of complaints from those enrolled. He added that the program works especially well for people who work unusual schedules and already don’t use as much electricity as others during peak hours.

“It’s probably not even going to affect you,” he said. “You may not even be home when that change takes place.”

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Jacob Demmitt covers business and technology out of the New River Valley bureau.

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