California Proposes Taking Control of Thermostats

Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:23pm EDT
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( - The California Energy Commission has proposed requiring thermostats that allow the government to control the temperature of homes and businesses in case of high energy prices or shortages, a measure that some critics are calling "draconian."

The proposed regulations would require all residential and non-residential buildings to have a Programmable Communicating Thermostat (PCT).

The regulations state that "all PCTs shall be distributed with a non-removable Radio Data System (RDS) communications device ... which can be used by utilities to send price and emergency signals." For price events, thermostats can be offset by up to four degrees, but "customers shall be able to change the offsets and thermostat settings at any time during price events."

Upon receiving an emergency signal, "the PCT shall respond to commands contained in the emergency signal, including changing the setpoint by any number of degrees or to a specific temperature setpoint. The PCT shall not allow customer changes to thermostat settings during emergency events."

"This brings new meaning to the term 'climate control,'" said Peyton Knight, director of environmental and regulatory affairs at the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research.

"One of the reasons that liberal societies have free markets ... is so that people can make judgments and make tradeoffs for themselves," Tom Firey, regulatory policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, told Cybercast News Service.

"In a sense, what California is doing is making the price infinite - at no price can you get the energy you need," he said. "They could claim that they are trying to give people a price break, but in a theoretical sense they're actually not - they are saying 'you can't get it at all,' which isn't a price break, it's an infinite price."

While Firey said the proposal would not be effective, he acknowledged that the California Energy Commission has some legitimate concerns.

"There is actually some reason behind this idiocy," he said. "The reasoning is that most of our power problems are [during] peak usage ... when everyone's got their heater or air conditioner and lights on and they are really drawing the juice.

"One of the things people don't realize is that we have a lot of generation capacity that is just out there to be used a few days a year - just for those peak moments," Firey added.

"The notion that we want people at those times to cut back on their use - and that doing that will help everyone because we won't need all of this generation capacity that sits unused most of the time - is sensible," said Firey.

"If the government wants to be stringent enough, they can certainly reduce consumption in this way," said Jerry Ellig, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. "I'd call it the worst way to accomplish the goal, though."

Ellig said the California approach does not address the needs of all users.

"There are ways to induce people to reduce their consumption that respect individual diversity, medical conditions, [and] individual preferences," he told Cybercast News Service. "Public policy ought to respect that type of diversity."

He said the same technology that would control thermostats could be used to give consumers real time energy prices, allowing them to decide how to adjust their thermostats accordingly.

Ellig noted that experiments in the state of Washington that gave customers real-time information showed significant reductions in the amount of energy people chose to use.

"The great thing about real-time pricing and smart thermostats is that they allow individuals to reduce their consumption in response to prices, taking their own preferences and priorities into account," he said.

"That means the goal of reduced consumption can be accomplished at the least possible pain to consumers. The California proposal is a meat-axe approach that simply assumes everyone must cut back usage by an equal amount," Ellig added.

"Aside from obvious problems such as endangering the sick and elderly, who may require a certain climate, and distorting energy markets and causing more frequent shortages, this draconian plan will be felt disproportionately throughout the state," Knight added.

He noted that, for example, San Franciscans might not mind the regulation "because during the dog days of summer their average temperature is 20 degrees cooler than the central and western portions of the state."

"While the well-to-do sip Margaritas in the cool bay breeze, the less fortunate might be inhabiting their refrigerators," he told Cybercast News Service.

The commission will decide on Jan. 30 whether or not to adopt the regulations.

"I would really be surprised if this survives," Ellig said. "I think the idea that the government would reach into your house and control your thermostat on a basic level is just so repugnant to most people that this kind of idea doesn't have any kind of traction."

The California Energy Commission did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.

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