California wants to control home thermostats

International Herald Tribune | January 11, 2008
By Felicity Barringer

SAN FRANCISCO: The conceit in the 1960s show "The Outer Limits" was that outside forces had taken control of your television set.

Next year in California, state regulators are likely to have the emergency power to control individual thermostats, sending temperatures up or down through a radio-controlled device that will be required in new or substantially modified houses and buildings to manage electricity shortages.

The proposed rules are contained in a document circulated by the California Energy Commission, which for more than three decades has set state energy efficiency standards for home appliances, like water heaters, air conditioners and refrigerators.

The changes would allow utilities to adjust customers' preset temperatures when the price of electricity is soaring. Customers could override the utilities' suggested temperatures. But in emergencies, the utilities could override customers' wishes.

Final approval is expected next month.

"You realize there are times - very rarely, once every few years - when you would be subject to a rotating outage and everything would crash including your computer and traffic lights, and you don't want to do that," said Arthur Rosenfeld, a member of the energy commission.

Reducing individual customers' electrical use - if necessary, involuntarily - could avoid that, Rosenfeld said. "If you can control rotating outages by letting everyone in the state share the pain," he said, "there's a lot less pain to go around."

While the proposals have received little attention in California, the Internet and talk radio are abuzz with indignation at the idea.

The radio-controlled thermostat is not a new technology, though it is constantly being tweaked; the latest iterations were on display this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Pacific Gas and Electric, the major utility in Northern California, already has a pilot program in Stockton that allows customers to choose to have their air-conditioning systems attached to a radio-controlled device to reduce use during periods when electricity rates are at their peak. But the idea that a government would mandate use of these devices and reserve the power to override a building owner's wishes galls some people.

"This is an outrage," one Californian said in an e-mail message to Rosenfeld. "We need to build new facilities to handle the growth in this state, not become Big Brother to the citizens of California."

The broader stir on the Internet began when Joseph Somsel, a San Jose-based contributor to the publication American Thinker, wrote an article a week ago on the programmable communicating thermostat, or PCT. Somsel went after the proposal with arguments that were by turns populist ("Come the next heat wave, the elites might be comfortably lolling in La Jolla's ocean breezes" while "the Central Valley's poor peons are baking in Bakersfield"), free-market ("PCTs will obscure the price signals to power plant developers") and civil libertarian ("the new PCT requirement certainly seems to violate the 'a man's home is his castle' common-law dictum"). Word of the California proposal hit the outrage button in corners of the Internet, was written about in The North County Times in Southern California, and got a derisive mention on Wednesday on Rush Limbaugh's radio program. The fact that similar radio-controlled technologies have been used on a voluntary basis in irrigation systems on farm fields and golf courses and in limited programs for buildings on Long Island is seldom mentioned in Internet postings that make liberal use of references to George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984" and Big Brother, the omnipresent voice of Orwell's police state. Ralph Cavanagh, an energy expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview that at a time of peak electricity use, "most people given a choice of 2 degrees of temperature setback and 14th-century living would happily embrace this capacity." Somsel, in an interview on Thursday, said he had done further research and was concerned that the radio signal - or the Internet instructions that would be sent, in an emergency, from utilities' central control stations to the broadcasters sending the FM signal - could be hacked into. That is not possible, said Nicole Tam, a spokeswoman for PG&E who works with the pilot program in Stockton. Radio pages "are encrypted and encoded," Tam said.