In 2011, thermostats became cool for possibly the first time ever. The Nest Learning Thermostat turned something as banal as climate control into an optimization puzzle, complete with its own app. But while Nest wants to shake up its industry by going straight to consumers with personalization tools, the company still relies strongly on larger, more traditional ties with energy companies. It introduced its first partnership with Texas' Reliant Energy last year, convincing Reliant to offer a free Nest thermostat with a two-year service plan. Now, it's leveraging those ties with Nest Energy Services, a set of partnerships that offer extra big data-based features to customers of participating electrical companies, including Reliant, Green Mountain Energy, National Grid, Edison of Southern California, and Austin Energy.

Nest leans on big data to save energy

One of the Nest thermostat's biggest selling points is its automation: a programmable thermostat might save electricity — which is why so many energy companies offer them for free — but only if you're willing to set it up. Its newest features build on this, finding workarounds for the little inefficiencies that come from simply not wanting to spend your life tweaking temperature settings. The first is called "Rush Hour," meant to lower electricity demand during major spikes like a hot afternoon. When a power company expects a surge in use, the Nest will tell its user, cooling the house slightly in the preceding hours. As things heat up, it will cycle air conditioning instead of running it consistently, keeping the temperature relatively constant while cutting down on power use. It's possible to take control manually, but if you leave it be, you'll get a credit from the power company, saving an estimated $20 to $60 per season.

This kind of reimbursement program isn't new. With programmable thermostats, energy companies can automatically adjust users' thermostats higher on hot days and credit them for it — this plan from AEP Ohio, for example, offers between $3 and $8 a month in the summer. Essentially, Nest is trying to make that process less uncomfortable, whether by cooling the house beforehand or by making it clearer and easier to opt out of the process.

The new features are essentially there to save users from themselves

The second feature, which Nest refers to as a "Seasonal Savings" tune-up, is meant to fight the set routines that people can drift into. After turning it on, the tool will figure out an optimal temperature, then gradually shift the heating or cooling schedule over a period of three weeks. Unlike Rush Hour, it seems like the kind of thing that could come to all Nest buyers. But Nest says that processing those schedules can't be done affordably without the subsidies it gets from power companies.

Both these tools, essentially, are there to save users from themselves. If you're conscientious enough, you could find an optimal temperature setting or let the power company turn up a programmable thermostat, but Nest will do it for you — for a $249 price tag. As a final draw, several providers are also throwing in a $100 rebate, which Nest will automatically deduct from the purchase price online. Reliant, Green Mountain Energy, and National Grid will all offer the rebate, while Reliant, Edison of Southern California, Green Mountain, and Austin Energy all offer some combination of the two features above.