Google Nest thermostats will soon help you use more — and even buy — clean energy

Nest Renew can align home energy use with cleaner grid power and fund new wind and solar for $10 a month. Will consumers buy in?

Google Nest’s latest pitch: Shift home energy use to match the grid’s clean energy and offset your dirty energy use with new wind and solar for $10 a month. (Google Nest)
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Google Nest’s smart thermostats are already saving energy for millions of U.S. households and helping to maintain the stability of the nation’s power grids as they incorporate more renewables. Soon the thermostats will be able to buy clean energy for their owners as well. 

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That’s the idea behind Nest Renew, a multifaceted offering the company is unveiling on Wednesday. Over the coming months, Google Nest will open up a range of clean-energy-supporting options to its more than 11 million U.S. smart thermostat customers, ranging from free services to shift home energy use to times when more clean power is available to a $10-a-month program to support building new wind and solar projects. 

These options go beyond the standard energy-efficiency and load-shifting capabilities that are typically bundled into smart thermostats and smart appliances. It’s the first program of its kind, and it gives individuals a powerful way to support clean energy,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a Tuesday video announcement. 

The success of the initiative will depend on how many customers sign up for the new features as they’re rolled out over the coming weeks and months — particularly when it comes to shelling out extra money each month to help fund the development of new renewable energy projects. 

But Google Nest anticipates significant uptake from customers who want to help the environment as well as automate their homes and save on energy bills, said Ben Brown, the company’s director of product management, in an interview. 

The objectives are twofold, he said: How can we make better use of the clean energy we have on the grid today? [And] how can we support the growth of clean energy resources?” 

Matching home energy use to the carbon-intensity of the grid 

To help support existing clean energy, the Nest Renew will automatically adjust the thermostats of willing participants to maximize their use of clean power on the grids they’re connected to, Brown said. The data that will power this flexibility for customers in the continental U.S. will be provided by WattTime, a startup that assesses the carbon emissions profiles of power grids at 15-minute intervals by analyzing data from power plants and energy markets. 

Nest thermostats can already be automated to save energy, and millions of customers are already enrolled in utility programs that shift demand away from the periods when power grids are under stress due to high use, such as late afternoons and evenings. 

But utility rates don’t currently reflect where the power being offered at a given time of day falls on the spectrum of dirty versus clean. That’s where WattTime’s data comes in, granting insight into a grid’s carbon emissions. That data then enables thermostats to plan ahead to use more power when clean energy is peaking on the grid, for example, or to precool a house 30 minutes before clouds…start blocking solar power plants,” Brown said. 

The Nest Renew thermostat will be able to do this by making small temperature adjustments in homes, which in many cases won’t even be felt by residents. 

(Google Nest)

Many of Nest’s existing utility partners will take part in the Nest Renew rollout, including AES Corp., Consumers Energy, Duke Energy, NRG Energy, Portland General Electric, Southern California Edison and Southern Company, said Hannah Bascom, Google Nest’s head of energy partnerships. Each of these utilities has set its own long-term plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions, she added.

Nest Renew can help utilities reach their goals by expanding the scope of utility energy-efficiency and demand-response programs, automating thermostat responses to time-of-use” rates that charge customers different prices for electricity at different hours of the day, and otherwise raising awareness and getting more clean energy bought and built,” she said. Uplight, a company that links utility customers with energy-efficiency tips, products and programs, will also integrate its services with Nest Renew. 

Nest’s existing Leaf” icons system, which now indicates when thermostats are in energy-saving mode, will be expanded to alert homeowners when grid power is dirtier or cleaner, Bascom said. Customers can earn Leafs” for participating in energy-saving events under the new program, dubbed Energy Shift, or by committing to monthly challenges like altering appliance use to consume less dirty energy. When they hit milestones, customers can vote to support nonprofits on a list of Google partners that fund clean energy jobs and projects in disadvantaged communities, such as Grid Alternatives and Elevate.

Using smart thermostats to finance clean energy projects 

The features described above — which will be available for free in Nest’s latest generation of thermostats, including the lower-cost Nest E — are aimed at better integrating the clean energy that’s already on the grid today, Brown said. 

The $10-a-month Clean Energy Match service, on the other hand, asks customers to hand over money to help fund the addition of more renewable power to the grid in the future. 

For customers participating in this premium program that is available in select U.S. markets, Google Nest will match your fossil fuel electricity use [with] renewable energy credits from U.S. solar and wind plants like those that are part of Google’s portfolio,” Brown said. In other words, customers will be paying a fee to buy clean energy to offset the share of their monthly electricity bill that comes from dirty power, as calculated by WattTime. 

The first round of renewable energy credits (RECs) will come from projects in Texas that Google is already financing — a 276-megawatt wind project owned by Southern Company subsidiary Southern Power and a 500-megawatt solar project being built by Rosendin’s Renewable Energy Group. Future projects that could be funded by the program are being explored with the development arms of NRG and AES and with utility partners Consumers Energy and Southern California Edison, according to Wednesday’s announcement. 

Google has already financed more than 5.5 gigawatts of clean energy projects; it has also purchased enough carbon-free energy to match its annual electricity consumption around the world since 2017. Its new goal is to match its entire electricity demand with carbon-free energy every hour of every day by 2030, which will require a combination of round-the-clock clean energy and flexibility in terms of when the company uses power to match the ups and downs of wind and solar generation. 

The RECs being matched to Nest Renew customers will support portions of wind and solar project generation that aren’t already accounted for in Google’s corporate renewables purchases, Brown noted. 

They will, however, be put to use as part of Google’s strategy of building wind and solar projects in areas where they are likely to displace the greatest amount of dirty energy. 

This approach, which the company calls carbon-targeted procurement,” is a relatively new part of Google’s broader energy strategy, but it’s one that’s playing an increasing role in how companies and governments plan clean energy investments to maximize their carbon-reduction potential. Google will work with energy-modeling firm Vibrant Clean Energy to analyze the factors that inform emissions-reduction potential, including power plant operations, grid infrastructure, and patterns of electricity use and demand. 

Looking to everyday customers to enable a cleaner grid 

Cutting the power grid’s carbon footprint will require a massive build-out of wind and solar power, as well as the deployment of energy storage systems to balance the variable output of wind and solar plants. But convincing utility customers to reduce and shift their electricity demand to more opportune time periods could also play a vital role in this balancing act. 

We want to think about how we can utilize our energy footprint to spawn innovation and development of renewable energy projects in a way that’s as effective as possible,” Brown said. Tapping Nest thermostats as part of that footprint is a way to work with our customers collectively to have even more impact.” 

To date, efforts by companies to enlist customers in such grid-balancing efforts haven’t grown to the scale needed to smooth the path toward a cleaner power sector. But Nest’s hefty market share could allow its new program to play an outsized role in balancing a renewable-heavy grid, according to a new report from nonprofit research organization RMI

If 1 million Nest customers signed up for the $10-a-month premium product, the resulting clean energy funding could build enough wind and solar power and enable enough home energy efficiency and flexibility to cut about 5 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year from the grid, the report finds. (Canary Media is an independent subsidiary of RMI.)

That’s just a fraction of the approximately 1,450 million metric tons of emissions that came from U.S. electricity generation last year. Still, it represents a material savings impact at scale,” said Mark Dyson, a principal in RMI’s Carbon-Free Electricity Practice and co-author of the report. 

Even enlisting just 1 million thermostats in the free services offered via Nest Renew could cut about 1 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year, primarily by adjusting energy use in response to the carbon-intensity of the grid at different times of the day, according to Dyson.

(RMI)

Google Nest has been aggressively promoting its thermostats as a tool to clean up electricity grids. Several of its partners have purchased large quantities of Nest thermostats to give away to customers, including Consumers Energy in Michigan and OhmConnect in California.

It’s far from the only smart thermostat vendor in the market, of course. Competitors include long-time industry heavyweights such as Honeywell and Emerson, as well as rivals in the burgeoning smart-home device market such as Amazon. 

How customers react to the new Nest Renew offering may provide a glimpse into the broader market appetite for putting a product built for household comfort and convenience to work in solving the climate crisis.

Jeff St. John is the editor-in-chief of Canary Media. He covers the technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He served as managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.