Ontario pulls plug on little-used energy program – Ottawa

A $270-million energy conservation program that allowed utilities in Ontario to remotely access home thermostats and scale back power usage during peak demand times is coming to an end Saturday, having been activated only 21 times in a decade.

The Peaksaver PLUS program, launched in 2005 in Toronto and expanded two years later across the rest of the province, was lauded as a way to give utilities a tool to manage the load on the power grid.

‘The reported success of the program far exceeded actual success.’
– Tom Adams, energy researcher

Consumers who applied received a free, programmable thermostat that allowed their energy provider to throttle down their air conditioners during times of high usage such as heat waves.

Some 327,000 homeowners — or slightly less than 10 per cent of the province’s energy customers — received the thermostats before the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), the program’s manager, stopped giving them away in 2015.

In theory, having some control over the energy usage of those customers gave Ontario’s power providers the ability to reduce peak demand by up to 180 megawatts.

But in practice, this rarely happened.

According to the IESO the program was activated province-wide just 21 times, including twice in the last week during a rare September heat wave.

Toronto Hydro occasionally activated the program locally, as it did during flooding in July 2013.

But in Ottawa, where some 34,000 Hydro Ottawa customers subscribed to the program, Peaksaver only came into play during province-wide activations, or during some of the two dozen test activations the ISEO ran during the program’s decade in service.

‘Almost completely useless’

Tom Adams, an independent energy researcher and frequent critic of the Ontario Liberal government’s energy policies, said given program’s $270-million price tag, the results are laughable.

“This was rolled out with a lot of fanfare and received a tremendous amount of support from official Ontario,” Adams said. “But the reported success of the program far exceeded actual success.”

Adams noted another intended benefit of the program was energy savings for consumers who used the thermostats, but an independent assessment in 2015 by consultant Nexant found the displays had “no observable effect on monthly consumption.”

“It’s a lot of money for something that has been almost completely useless,” Adams said. “The fact that it’s taken until now to finally pull the plug on this loser program is just another illustration of why Ontario’s electricity system is in the soup that it’s in.”

Built awareness among consumers

Those who administered the program contend that it was a success, and say its main aims were to introduce consumers to programmable thermostats and empower them to control their usage.

‘I think we wouldn’t want to underestimate the educational factor.’
– Linda Bruce, Hydro Ottawa

“None of that I believe would have been possible had we not had a program like Peaksaver that allowed us to learn how it works and to learn what is possible,” said Chuck Farmer, the director of stakeholder and public affairs at the IESO.

Linda Bruce, with Hydro Ottawa’s conservation and demand management group, agreed. Bruce said by simply introducing the public to programmable thermostats, Peaksaver served a great purpose.

“I think we wouldn’t want to underestimate the educational factor.”

Aging technology

The program is ending in part because both the technology and the way the province manages its power grid have changed.

With more options available through mobile phone applications to program thermostats remotely, Farmer said consumers are now better equipped to manage their own energy consumption than they were 10 years ago.

“You’ve got much better technologies coming out, you’ve got providers that allow for two-way communication. They allow customers to be much more in control of their energy use,” Farmer said.

As utilities took notice of those changes, they began to wind down their participation in the Peaksaver program.

“The challenge was, [Peaksaver] didn’t adapt or adopt to new technology,” Bruce said. “So most of us stopped installing the thermostats in 2014.”

New thermostats on offer

In Ottawa, people who had Peaksaver PLUS devices installed on their water heaters will need to call their utility to get it removed, free of charge.

Those who used the thermostats to adjust their air conditioners will be able to keep the units, but they’ll no longer be able to adjust their home’s temperature remotely through their utility’s website.

And while one provincial program winds down, another is expected to replace it.

The GreenON Installations program, paid in part from proceeds of Ontario’s cap-and-trade auctions, will be offering eligible households a chance to have a smart thermostat — capable of communicating through a mobile phone, unlike the Peaksaver thermostats — installed at no cost.

The province said 100,000 smart thermostats will be available for installation, beginning in the fall.

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