January 12, 2008
Radio-Controlled Thermostat Lowering In Electric Shortages

California's regulatory authorities are taking over your home thermostat.

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.

Okay, this is kinda creepy. It also draws attention to a deeper regulatory failure: the lack of dynamic electric pricing. If the demand for a product or services gets too high then the price should rise. The regulatory agencies and suppliers should not be in the business of deciding which particular use of electricity should be curtailed in a shortage. Raise the price and let the various users decide whether they want to cut back or pay more.

So why doesn't the California Energy Commission require new homes to install electric meters that support dynamic pricing? Let homeowners then program their thermostats to change to different target temperatures depending on the price of electricity. Homeowners could even program dishwashers and clothes washers and driers to kick on once electric prices drop below some max level.

We need dynamic pricing in order to enable wider usage of wind and solar energy. Wind and solar aren't dependable. Okay, charge more when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. Charge less on long windy days with blue skies.

Dynamic pricing also works in favor of nuclear power. Nuclear is a baseload power source. Dynamic pricing will reduce demand peaks and valleys. So more electric power will get used as baseload power under a dynamic pricing scheme. This plays to nuclear's strengths (though the state of California opposes nuclear power). We need nuclear power in order to provide substitute electric power after natural gas production peaks and world coal production peaks maybe in 2025 (and see CalTech professor David Rutledge on an earlier peak in coal production).

Another point: If the California Energy Commission insists on going through with their regulatory proposal they ought to provide an incentive for installation of solar panels. Basically, allow any house with more than some amount of solar panels to be free from the restrictive effects of this regulation. Build a house that generates energy and become more free in your usage of energy.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 January 12 05:35 PM  Energy Policy

odograph said at January 12, 2008 6:58 PM:

You guys know it's an option, right?

They sent an offer. Pay the standard rate, or select from a couple "outer limits" plan that reduce your bll. At your option. As far as I know this is AC only, not heat.

I think it's pretty cool myself, but living in the coastal zone I don't have or need AC.

Randall Parker said at January 12, 2008 7:13 PM:


"will be required"

"mandate use"

Fat Man said at January 12, 2008 8:44 PM:

The first step towards the future.

odograph said at January 12, 2008 9:13 PM:

Your headline is present tense. I told you the plan that is present tense, in play.

It sounds like someone is playing chicken little.

I see "proposed rules" there too. If you want to scold me, fix your headline, and make clear you are sweating a possible (and IMO unlikely) future.

Ye Gods! Checking, the times headline is "seeks" yours is "are taking over."

In my opinion it is very unlikely that they are going to mandates, really, when the optional plan has only been marketed to consumers for about a year (business users longer than that).

odograph said at January 12, 2008 9:24 PM:

Now we are narrowing it down. It was not when they felt like. It was for when power emergencies would shut down traffic lights and schools and ... still that was "sought" and already "defeated;"

"Public outcry has put a stop to a proposal that could have let utilities control the temperature in Californians' homes, without letting customers override the thermostat setting in a power emergency."

I said, my power company is doing a voluntary program:

"Southern California Edison already has a program that allows customers to have their air-conditioning system attached to a wireless device, turning off the compressor when demand is high. More than 290,000 customers participate, reducing their bills and saving 593 megawatts at times of peak demand.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the major utility in Northern California, has a similar program.

Edison supports requiring the controllable thermostats in new homes, but wants customers to be able to decide whether utilities can make temperature changes during peak demand times, said Larry Oliva, director of tariff programs and services.

"We think voluntary programs, in fact, can be equally successful if not more so," he said."

more here

Strange though. Do you really prefer that companies be unable to control the grid in true emergencies?

Randall Parker said at January 12, 2008 9:28 PM:


It is so much quicker to just read the subject before commenting before bothering with the content of a post. Since the subject is so incredibly short (necessarily so) this provides more latitude to interpret the post in a way that is more appealing to your intellect and esthetic sense. Cool.

aa2 said at January 12, 2008 9:36 PM:

Remember you can't control a population without inducing artificial shortages. Once you have created shortages it justifies greater and greater control of the population. Its shouldn't be rocket science that the people like Gore and his very wealthy friends who are against any new production and want to shut down old production.. are also the same group wanting more control of peoples lives.

odograph said at January 13, 2008 7:04 AM:

I skimmed, it is true. In the internet age, and with 59 rss feeds, it's what I do.

That said my skim correctly identified the flaw in your piece. This proposed rule is (a) not as extreme as the apparent media circus made it out to be, and (b) it is not really happening.

But feel free to blame me for your headline being wrong.

odograph said at January 13, 2008 7:26 AM:

BTW, I thought my first comment with the California experience was friendly. I thought your first response was snippy, which I admit caused some escalation on my part.

At this point we should probably just fall back to facts. California, and Southern California where I live, has a voluntary program. A mandate was "sought" by the regulators, but was denied.

I still think the interesting question is whether central control is really needed for true emergencies. It seems sub-optimal if the power company is forced to turn of blocks or cities because they don't have finer grained control.

I'm assuming of course that "emergency" is when you are up against rolling blackouts.

odograph said at January 13, 2008 8:10 AM:

BTW, to continue with facts, California does have a solar roof program in place.

I actually think it (also) is sub-optimal. Basically we have a lot of inland valleys and nearby deserts with good "clear sky" averages. Panel farms built there would have high output and low transmission losses. They'd also benefit from optimized placement (with trackers) and professional management.

On the other hand, rooftop solar is likely to be fixed (not sun tracking) and possibly even restricted to roof profile. Owners may not wash them as often as is required (dust significantly cuts output), or to fix them immediately if a problem is to occur.

Oh, and many homes here (esp the San Francisco homes we hear about getting regulated solar) are in coastal zones with frequent overcast and light scattering.

Basically rooftop solar feels good, and wins politically for that reason. It's sad.

Bob Badour said at January 13, 2008 9:42 AM:


In what way would dynamic pricing with voluntary use restrictions based on price prevent the utility from responding to emergencies? They could just keep increasing the price until enough devices turned off.

odograph said at January 13, 2008 12:40 PM:

I'm not opposed to dynamic pricing systems. Whatever works. The 593 megawatts SCE claims to have shaved of peak demand sounds like it works. It's interesting too that you trade lower base rates for relinquishing degrees of control (different degrees for different prices).

So I wouldn't pull the plug on this system as it gets going, but I wouldn't say any other state would have to do it our way, or that they shouldn't try the automated bid/ask systems.

K said at January 13, 2008 1:44 PM:

CA utilities legally can, and sometimes do, cut off all power to entire communities and/or huge consumers when power demand gets too high. I haven't lived there for a while but they were doing it around 2001. The areas turned off were chosen randomly.

The large consumers, such as hospitals, switch on their own electrical backup generators, turn off as much lighting as possible, and continue operations.

This plan seems better. Gradually move control to the individual level and reward those who will give up some convenience and comfort to save money.

averros said at January 13, 2008 4:54 PM:

The best plan is to get the state out of electricity business whatsoever. Do not forget that the electricity shortages in California were created by the government in the first place - specifically by the price-fixing scheme by Gov. Davis and his cronies which was touted as "deregulation" - and by decades of state-run utility monopolism preceding that "deregulation".

asl said at January 14, 2008 6:17 AM:

I personally prefer the intelligent electronics idea. That my house/devices know when to minimize consumption based on price and when it's ok to go on at full blast. Also, I'd like to have an EV in my garage, which could serve both as backup power for me when prices are too high and possibly (for a fee) as backup for the power company as well.
Actually I'm amazed that this kind of idea could be conceived in the US, this sounds much more like something the Scandinavian countries would come up with :)

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