Following the release of the slimmed-down second-gen Nest Learning Thermostat less than a year after its predecessor, it may have seemed that the device, a remarkably intuitive household helper geared toward Apple adherents and anyone else who gives a damn about the intersection of aesthetics and household energy savings, just couldn’t get any more useful. Well it has.

This really shouldn’t come as any surprise to those familiar with parent company Nest Labs, a Google Ventures-funded Silicon Valley startup headed by none other than Tony “father of the iPod” Fadell himself. It’s in the very DNA of this WiFi-connected gizmo — the "put-it-anywhere hockey puck of comfort” as described by Wired — to continually evolve and get better all in the name of decreased energy bills without a soupçon of comfort sacrificed.

As announced earlier today by Nest Labs, the latest improvement is a biggie. Called Nest Energy Services and composed of two new opt-in features powered by Auto-Tune technology, this is the first step in a greater move to expand the device’s functionality outside of the home and into the power grid itself allowing entire communities of Nest users to save precious dollars — and prevent outages —together. Essentially, the aim is provide consumers with the benefits of a smart grid ... minus the actual smart grid.

And when data pulled from the grid is involved, so are a host of regional utility providers. In this case, Nest has partnered with four major utilities: Reliant, Green Mountain Energy, Austin Energy, and Southern California Edison. 

The first new service, Rush Hour Rewards, is geared to help Nest users earn money or credits (in the ballpark of $20 to $60 per season) during summertime peak load events. When the grid is strained and energy consumption spikes during ungodly heat waves, Nest automatically adjusts your household temperature as needed (read: bumps up the temp a few cost-saving notches) so that you’re drawing less energy. When strain is reduced and threat of brownouts no longer loom, the Nest readjusts itself back to your preferred temperature. Users are notified of rush hour events the night before they occur and, of course, they can override the temperature changes if they find themselves drowning in a pool of their own sweat.

Nest further explains further in a press release:

Just like rush hour on the freeway, when there aren’t enough lanes to accommodate all the traffic, the electric grid can also get congested on hot summer days. To keep up with demand, additional — and often less efficient — power plants are brought online to cover high-demand days. Energy providers would rather reward their customers for using less energy during rush hours, and Rush Hour Rewards is designed to help customers take advantage of those rewards.

Rush Hour Rewards automatically adjusts temperatures around rush hours. Depending on what Nest has learned from you and your home, Nest might raise the temperature by a few degrees during the afternoon and/or pre-cool a home before the rush hour begins to make sure you’re reasonably comfortable while using less energy during the rush hour. The customer is always in control. To override the temperature, simply change the setting during a rush hour and Nest will keep the temperatures you set.

Geared to shave an additional 5 to 10 percent off of heating and cooling costs (based on nationwide trials), the second component of Nest Energy Services is dubbed Seasonal Savings:
Over time, everyone gets settled into a schedule. We get used to the temperatures we’ve set and can miss easy opportunities to decrease our bills. It’s possible to save a lot of money by making minor temperature adjustments to your schedule and Seasonal Savings is designed to do that automatically for you, fine-tuning your schedule over several weeks so you don’t notice a difference in comfort. 

Seasonal Savings can appear twice per year: early in the heating and cooling seasons. It uses everything Nest has learned about your home and temperature preferences to identify ways that you can save energy without compromising comfort. Nest slowly adjusts temperatures over several weeks – never more than a few degrees total. This allows you to get used to the change gradually to make sure you don’t feel too hot or too cold. Changes could include moving a temperature so that it’s a little bit earlier or later in your schedule, adjusting temperatures a few degrees, or even adding or getting rid of temperatures in your schedule.

Like with Rush Hour Rewards, users can override the Seasonal Savings feature if need be. In a noted departure from past utility-guided efforts to curb energy usage during peak hours, the new services may render the Nest thermostat all the more intelligent but, in the end, it’s the user who ultimately retains control.

Explains Fadell on the Nest Labs blog:

The level of personalization and customer control in these Auto-Tune features is revolutionary to the energy industry. In the past, energy companies that wanted you to use less energy could simply shut off your AC with special thermostats on the hottest day of the year. Or they’d email you with savings tips and hope you remember. Nobody has ever designed energy-saving services with the consumer in mind.

Rush Hour Rewards and Seasonal Savings are designed to be, at their heart, incredibly easy. Sign up for them and Nest will do all the work—you won’t have to adjust your schedule or change the temperature, managing your bill through trial and error. Nest will tweak temperatures for you, always keeping your comfort in mind. It’ll tell you what’s happening, how much it’s saving, and let you know before it makes a big change. It’ll sense if you’re home or not, sleeping or not, and make the biggest adjustments when nobody will notice them.

Nest Labs' utility partnerships aren't simply for the benefit of existing Nest thermostat owners in certain areas. The company is also aiming to get more units into more homes through special rebates and incentives offered via the participating providers, which collectively serve more than 90 million customers. For National Grid customers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Rush Hour Rewards and Seasonal Savings are currently unavailable. However, the utility is offering an instant online rebate on Nest thermostats to the tune of $100. Houston-based NRG Energy subsidiary Reliant, a partner that provides both new services, is also offering the $250 stainless steel devices to customers free-of-charge when they enroll in certain energy-saving plans. The Nest website has further details on what services and incentives partnering utilities currently offer.

Noting that more energy partners are being added to the small but impressive existing roster. Remarks Fadell : “We’re just getting started.”

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Nest Learning Thermostat taps into grid with regional utility partnerships
In an effort help homeowners save precious dollars, Nest Labs partners with regional utility companies for a pair of energy-saving services.