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Comverge, one of several companies offering utilities third-party demand response and energy efficiency services, announced today that it has signed a $30 million deal with major Texas utility TXU Energy to roll out about 100,000 smart thermostats across its coverage area.

Smart thermostats are quickly becoming one of the most popular tools for consumers to reduce their energy consumption and their electricity bills. Sporting user-friendly interfaces, they remember temperature settings, and transmit usage data to both utilities and consumer-facing energy management and monitoring devices. They can automatically adjust up or down depending on overarching demand, external weather conditions, user-defined rules, and other factors without compromising comfort.

All of these features make thermostats a hot new area for Comverge. The company’s core business is providing utilities with demand response services, allowing them to remotely reduce power consumption (by turning down customers’ air conditioners, or shutting off other non-essential power sucks) during peak demand periods. The idea is to make sure that demand never exceeds supply, causing blackouts and other costly disruptions.

But demand response is a hard concept to market to average consumers. It’s not exactly sexy, and a lot of it takes place behind the scenes. To warm up to the mass market, several of Comverge’s competitors, particularly EnerNOC, have diversified their energy efficiency offerings. EnerNOC even acquired company SmallFoot earlier this year to tailor its programs to small business owners.

Comverge is obviously riding the same trend. The thermostats it’s installing in TXU-powered homes will allow customers to program their devices to come on or shut off at certain times. Most of all, they will allow people to monitor their energy consumption and adjust it remotely via the internet, and eventually their mobile phones, if need be. Comverge has similar deals in the bag with utilities like Pepco, Exelon and PECO to install a total of 500,000 smart thermostats over the next five years.

TXU, is particularly well suited for smart device installation. It’s one of a bevy of utilities moving toward more diverse and progressive offerings to remain competitive in a deregulated energy market like Texas. Increasingly, it’s not enough for energy vendors like PG&E, Oncor and ConEd to provide power and expect customers to pay whatever they are quoted. People want more choices, and they want to know their power companies are on board with saving energy and helping them save money.

In this spirit, TXU gives its rate payers a choice between two payment plans. They can either pay a flat rate for their energy, or they can pay based on time-of-use — meaning that their energy is more expensive when demand is higher across the grid. Smart thermostats can make a big difference for time-of-use customers, in particular.

To get one of the Comverge thermostats, TXU customers need to pay $75 and agree to keep it installed for two years.

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