Big Brother Wants Your Thermostat

The California Energy Commission recently considered a proposal to take control of home thermostats, a move that drew national attention and public protests. The CEC has now backed off,-but the story remains instructive for California consumers and policy makers alike.

Under the original proposal, part of a 236-page revision to building standards, California utilities would use a radio controlled thermostat to dictate the temperature of new homes and commercial buildings. Customers would not use their thermostats during “emergency events,” according to the proposal. They would apply only to new buildings-for now.

During heat waves, many customers crank up the air conditioning or leave the AC at the original level of comfort, which still increases demand and strains the state’s power supply. By giving utilities the power to adjust power demand by re-setting air conditioners remotely, the hope was to avoid more severe interruptions, such as rolling blackouts.

“Upon receiving an emergency signal, the PCT shall respond to commands contained in the emergency signal, including changing the set-point by any number of degrees or to a specific temperature set point. The PCT shall not allow customer changes to thermostat settings during emergency events,” the CEC reported.

Barring customers from controlling devices in their own homes is a severe infringement on liberty, and the Utility Consumers Action Network said customers should be allowed to override the thermostat. In an email message, Michael Shames, UCAN’s executive director, called the directive “a stunner.” Such “advanced” energy technologies, he said, “have the potential to be used for both good and evil. It looks like the California Energy Commission wants it both ways.”

Shames wrote that allowing external control of thermostats could help customers better manage their energy use, which he supports. A secondary feature of the new thermostats allows consumers to react to price signals.

“However, it is repugnant and entirely unacceptable to mandate that the customer loses control over the device that will be mandatorily placed in their homes,” Shames wrote.

The thermostat control would be “exercised only in cases of need,” and is the latest “refinement” of a 30-year-old building energy conservation program, said Adam Gottlieb, a spokesman for the California Energy Commission. Thanks to efficiency standards. California’s demand for electricity has remained flat since the late 1970s even as its population has doubled,” Gottlieb claimed.

In reality, in the history of California energy standards, consumption has actually increased by about 60 percent, while only the per-capita consumption has remained flat, and not entirely, or even primarily, due to the standards. For a more complete explanation of why per-capita consumption has remained flat see “Lights On,” published in 2007 by the Pacific Research Institute.

Perhaps recognizing that political efforts to control the climate is futile, regulators seemed bent on controlling the comfort of Californians. The threat of turning off peoples’ air conditioning is another phase of the “just say no” approach to energy policy in California. The state says no to new sources, reasonable prices, consumer choice and reliable service. Instead of giving utilities the power to control demand, why not give them the power to increase supply and delivery?

Regulators should understand that they serve the public, not the other way around. Without public protest, the California Energy Commission would almost certainly have adopted the intrusive new standard, and will likely bring it back when they think nobody is looking. Californians should remain vigilant, but there is a way the standard might become acceptable. The CEC could leave homes and commercial buildings alone and limit mandatory thermostat control to all government buildings statewide, including the legislature. In other words, put your own house in order and keep your hands off our thermostats.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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