Controlling Your Temperature:

The California Energy Commission recently proposed including government-controlled thermostats in new energy efficiency standards for new buildings in the state.

Customers could not override the thermostats during "emergency events," according to the proposal, part of a 236-page revision to building standards. The document is scheduled to be considered by the California Energy Commission, a state agency, on Jan. 30.

The description does not provide any exception for health or safety concerns. It also does not define what are "emergency events."

During heat waves, customers crank up the air conditioning, putting severe strains on the state's power supply. By giving utilities the power to automatically adjust power demand by reducing air conditioning, the hope is that more severe interruptions, such as rolling blackouts, can be avoided.

The specific proposal can be found on pages 63-64 of this CEC document.

As one might expect, the prospect that government officials could control home thermostats was quite controversial, and the California Energy Commission has backtracked . . . a little.

As initially proposed, these programmable thermostats would have deferred in emergencies to a radio signal from utilities, wresting control from customers.

After public protests, Chandler said the commission staff has suggested letting customers choose whether to accept the emergency control.

The staff will make the recommendation at the energy commission's Jan. 30 meeting in Sacramento. The changed proposal would be taken up at a later date.

"The consumer or customer can override the emergency control," with the change, Chandler said.

The radio system used by the utilities would notify customers of an energy emergency. If the customer did nothing, utilities could reset the thermostat to a higher temperature, but no higher than 88 degrees.

However, the thermostat will still include a radio control component that utilities could use with consumers' consent. That component will be a mandatory part of the thermostat, which can't be removed by the consumer.

Critics say they fear that requiring new homes to include a radio-controlled thermostat will make it easier to enforce mandatory controls later.

A more sensible way of disciplining household energy use would be through prices. In the marketplace, increased demand will produce higher prices. Adopting peak-load pricing or even surcharges would provide market signals to consumers and provide an incentive to reduce energy use during an "energy emergency," but it would leave consumers in control of their own energy use.