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Lords of Your Thermostat? 

California Energy Commission caught in scalding water

Wednesday, Jan 16 2008
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BREATHE EASIER, SAN FERNANDO VALLEY air-conditioning junkies lolling in meat-locker-cold summertime living rooms. A statewide regulation that could have turned a utility-company employee — try Southern California Edison — into the god of your thermostat was dialed down this week before it could be voted on.

 

 


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The proposal from the state's California Energy Commission (CEC) would have mandated that "a nonremovable" radio communication system be installed in programmable thermostats for all new residential construction as of April 2009. The system would have allowed utilities to send consumers pricing and emergency information — and, when deemed necessary, even control the interior temperatures in private homes.

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Under the plan, a "quasi-governmental" energy-usage oversight company, the California Independent System Operator, would let the utilities know if a blackout situation was impending — say, a summer heat wave, in which one-third of California's juice is spent on air conditioners — and power suppliers could then instruct devices inside homes to elevate temperatures to a balmy 88 degrees to stave off outages.

The Energy Commission was "trying to avoid rolling outages where your computer crashes and streetlights crash," says Commissioner Arthur H. Rosenfeld. "If all the houses in California set their thermostats up a couple of degrees, you get a big decrease in load. And you avoid a crash."

Well, that was the idea.

The scenario, with its Big Brother–like soundbite, raised enough heat to create a political meltdown, and the plan was abruptly abandoned by the Energy Commission — for now.

Forget California's reputation as a green-leaning, Dwell-reading, blue state. The notion of government, through utilities, adjusting the comfort level in Californians' personal spaces caused extreme furor, and not simply from Libertarians and Republicans churning for fresh meat in the blogosphere.

Even before the state's pullback, Gwynne Pugh, who chairs the Planning Commission of one of the Top 10 sustainable cities in the country — Santa Monica — had dryly predicted, "That will go over like a lead balloon." Given Pugh's day job as a partner at an architectural firm known for integrating energy-efficient components in its work, Pugh might be expected to be the Energy Commission's ally. But even the California Independent System Operator distanced itself from any whiff of governmental thermostat intervention. "This is not an ISO mandate," director of communications Stephanie McCorkle wanted consumers to know.

Cities paralyzed block by block were last seen in the state in 2005, when Southern California Edison users experienced rolling blackouts without warning, leaving even those who needed electricity for medical equipment in their homes without juice.

Though programmable thermostats that promote energy efficiency and lower utility bills aren't new, the commission's effort, allowing real-time utility control of the temperature in personal residences, would have been the first in the country.

The regulation — incorporated amid more mundane changes to a statewide building-regulations program known as Title 24, which has been routinely updated since 1978 to increase energy efficiency — marks the latest skirmish between technological innovation and privacy.

The California Energy Commission staff, whose technical department initiated the idea, began backpedaling on Friday, January 11, after The New York Times published a story stating that, in an emergency, the state's utilities could override personal control of thermostats and change Californians' home temperatures during emergencies.

Following an outcry, Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director for the California Energy Commission, that evening told the L.A. Weekly that although the Programmable Communicating Thermostats (PCT), as the technology is known, would still have the power to initially manage temperatures during energy crises, ultimate control of thermostats would return to the consumer through override features rather than staying with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power or some other vendor.

Chandler also promised that the CEC would clean up the vague definition of "emergency" in the Title 24 provisions. "The public is concerned that the utilities would define 'emergency,' that the utilities might define it whatever way they want to. And that makes everyone uneasy," Chandler said. Thus, in the expected revisions, "emergency" would be defined as a Stage 3 emergency, "where rolling blackouts are imminent."

But by January 14, Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, chairwoman of the commission, was actively involved in bigtime public-relations triage, instructing the commission's staff to further roll back the program from an opt-out to an opt-in basis. Though residential builders would be required to install Programmable Communicating Thermostats, flipping the switch to allow utilities to connect to a resident's home thermostat would now be voluntary on the part of residents.

Her action wasn't enough. Suddenly, on January 15, the whole damn idea was dead. Even the good parts — and there were some. That day, the commission sent a statement to the Weekly stating that the PCT installation mandate was being withdrawn in its entirety from the current set of Title 24 revisions.

Lost in all the rhetoric, never making it to the front of a news cycle, was a far less controversial service provided by the devices: The hardware can significantly improve the use of energy-efficient "congestion pricing" programs that have nothing to do with utilities making consumers' decisions for them.

Congestion-pricing programs give voluntary participants the chance to save on their utility bills by limiting their energy use during peak usage times. In return, the energy they do purchase is furnished by their utility company at reduced rates. But if they exceed their promised usage, their power rates go up.

According to Rosenfeld, the two-way PCT devices would allow Californians to get updated information as to when expensive peak usage times are — or even ask their utility company to remotely adjust a thermostat when they're not home — and thus keep their usage within the congestion-pricing range they'd agreed to.

But in their push for an evolving technology that can contribute to energy efficiency, Rosenfeld and the commission staff, like accomplished scientists isolated in a lab, clearly didn't understand the visceral blow-back citizens feel about government entering their homes.

One person who does understand it is the chairman of the California State Assembly's Utilities and Commerce Committee. "I don't believe the government or businesses should be able to go into people's homes en masse," says 40th District Assembly Member Lloyd Levine of Van Nuys, regardless of whether the programs are voluntary or mandatory. (Levine has experienced the heat government regulations can draw. When he recently sought to ban the incandescent light bulb, his proposal drew a harsh response throughout the state.)

He was concerned that the PCT regulation could set back the energy-efficiency movement by damaging public support, and on January 14 suggested to the commission chair that the concept be pulled.

Another factor that made the Democrat gun-shy was how it would be implemented. Levine says that while it's the duty of the California Energy Commission to put forth regulations for constructing energy-efficient homes and other buildings, "They don't do programs." Rather, he explains, the execution of the commission's policies is worked out later, between the state Public Utilities Commission and the utilities themselves. The PCT regulation "put the cart before the horse."

In addition, Levine says that intrusive thermostats add little bang for the buck because they would be included only in new homes, which are already "the most energy-efficient construction." He argues that a better approach would be to work with apartment owners to retrofit thousands of energy-wasting and poorly insulated structures built between 10 and 30 years ago.

Though Chandler argues that "When you have a huge subdivision going into the San Fernando Valley, that could help," the commission's staff conceded that the effort would have affected only 1 percent of housing stock annually — the amount that's new each year.

Pugh, the Santa Monica city planning commissioner, sees the energy commission's misstep as "a short-term crisis solution to a long-term issue." He supports congestion-pricing programs, but without utility control of an individual's thermostat.

Says Pugh, "We need more distributed energy generation: voltaics, house wind generators, geothermal heat. We need to be living sustainably, within our means, but... regeneratively... Now, are all of these fiscally viable at the moment? Maybe not, but that's what we've got to be working towards. That way, we won't need to live in the dark future of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or 1984."

Reach the writer at tibbyrothman@verizon.net

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