October 02, 2023

Households with electric heat saving $70 per year with help from local utilities

Member Utilities

New research provides more opportunities to help lower income families in Wisconsin.

In the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, member utilities of WPPI Energy joined together to tackle an issue hurting many income-qualified households in Wisconsin: the high cost of heating their homes with electric resistance heat.

Electric resistance heat, while inexpensive to install, results in higher energy bills compared to natural gas furnaces or heat pumps. According to the 2015 Energy Information Association Residential Energy Consumption Survey, about 12% of households with income below $20,000 per year are primarily heated using built-in electric resistance heaters. Meanwhile, only 2% of households with income above $100,000 per year use electric heaters.

WPPI’s member utilities received a grant from the American Public Power Association’s (APPA’s) Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments (DEED) program to research the issue.

It was discovered that locally owned municipal utilities are well positioned to assist lower income households in pursuing energy efficiency through the implementation of line voltage smart thermostats (LVSTs). These thermostats allow customers to manage their electric resistance heat via a smart phone or tablet.

Some LVSTs also have learning capabilities and geolocation functionality. Geolocation monitors the proximity of a user’s phone to determine whether the user is at home. If the user is not home, the LVST will automatically begin setting the temperature back. For a customer to utilize all of the functionality of an LVST, the customer must have both Wi-Fi and a smart device.

To identify customers who use electric heat, an in-house software tool was created using Microsoft Excel. Through WPPI, 17 utilities used the tool alongside additional marketing efforts to find customers interested in installing LVSTs to control their electric heat usage.

After funding made available from DEED, member utilities and WPPI, customers paid $25 per smart thermostat. This included thermostat installation and recycling the old thermostats (a free recycler was identified for this project).

Over the course of the project, 883 thermostats were installed with an average savings of 614 kilowatts per thermostat or around $70 per year per thermostat.

“The local utilities that helped with this program were really involved,” shared research author Anna Stieve, senior energy services manager with WPPI Energy. “The utilities were excited to see customers save money, and now when future customers call in with concerns about the high cost of electric heat, the utilities can recommend using a smart thermostat.”

More customers are set to benefit from the research results in the future, regardless of whether their utility participated in the initial research. Focus on Energy, Wisconsin’s statewide energy efficiency and renewable energy program, continues to investigate offering incentives for LVSTs across all participants in the state.

Additionally, WPPI will also use the Microsoft Excel software tool that was developed to identify electric heat users across all 51 member utilities. The organization plans to use this information to promote the use of heat pumps as a more cost effective and energy efficient way to heat homes. Through APPA’s DEED Program, this tool is also made available to utilities across the country who are interested in identifying customers with electric heat.

According to Stieve, “We keep finding new ways to use the software tool to help customers. These are the fun projects – where we can identify a need and help the communities we serve.”


View the full report here.