In California, a proposal is being considered that would call for new thermostats in California households to be equipped with smart meter technology allowing utilities remote access to the thermostat. However, concern has been expressed over the utility companies’ essentially controlling people’s room temperatures. Not only does the proposal call for all new buildings be installed with smart meter technology, but that old thermostats be retrofitted.
Criticism over this ability for outside control of the thermostat has resulted in action taken by officials within the California Energy Commission to reword the proposed legislation to include a passage that gives utility customers the ability to block outside thermostat control. Fears had arisen over a developing “Big Brother” utility cabal having direct access to private homes.
Supporters say giving utility companies access to customers’ thermostats is important in times of critical power grid load, such as during the summer, by allowing the utility companies to limit use of air conditioners.
The revisited legislation will still call for smart meters to be installed in California homes with remote access for utility providers but consumers will have the ability to override any outside manipulation, according to California Energy Commission (CEC) spokesperson Claudia Chandler.
Besides the squabbles over how much access the utility companies should be allowed in side customers’ homes, the legislation promises to bring widespread smart meter rollout to California, a first in the United States. The proposal would not only require that new construction contain smart meter technology, but also that existing buildings have thermostats retrofitted or replaced with smart meters.
The revised proposal goes before the CEC at the end of January as part of the 2008 edition of California’s standards for building-efficiency, running 236-pages. The CEC will review the standards and the new proposals in committee before possibly approving the 2008 regulations at their meeting on February 27.
Outside access by utility companies to these special thermostats that can adjust air conditioning controls would only occur during power emergencies to avoid power blackouts. It can be said that utility companies in California have exerted this control already in the past by enforcing rolling brownouts to avoid widespread blackout situations. Using this method, utility companies have forced small power outages in different areas to avoid a catastrophic, widespread power outage. If utility companies had access to thermostat controls to limit consumer demand they wouldn’t have to force brownouts on the public.
Remote control would be established through radio transmissions. Several voluntary programs are already in place where utility companies have this access to customers’ thermostats.
CEC Commissioner Arthur Rosenfeld, the famed physicist who made groundbreaking energy-efficiency studies at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, supports the rewording of the legislation because of the expressed public concern and because he expects most utility customers will grant their power providers access to their thermostat controls in emergency situations.
Said Rosenfeld, “Ninety-nine out of 100 will comply anyway.” According to Rosenfeld, these emergencies are quite rare and happen only about once a decade.
However, vocal opposition has been expressed by lawmakers. California Assembly member Lloyd Levine, head of the utility and commerce committee, said, “I don’t think the CEC should be going into people’s homes to control their electricity. The state should provide people with incentives and education to do this on their own.”
Committee vice chairman Rick Keene agrees saying, “It feels awfully Orwellian to me if you have the utility, with the government’s blessing, be able to change the thermostat setting.” Keene went further to explain that the lack of definition to the term “emergency event” within the legislation theoretically could allow utilities aiming to cut costs could purposely not provide enough power and then declare an emergency had occurred.
Utility consumer watchdog groups such as TURN in San Francisco have jumped into the discussion also. Mindy Spatt, spokesperson for the group, said the proposal “shouldn’t be forced down people’s throats.” TURN also expresses concerns over the cost-effectiveness of the program, especially considering that it will result in rate-hikes for customers by utilities seeking to recoup their costs.
These squabbles over outside access to consumers’ thermostats are overshadowing the broader long-term California energy strategy and merely one function of the smart meters. These devices will also provide utility customers with information detailing how much energy is being consumed and at what rate. Consumers will have, for the first time ever, the ability to make informed decisions about their individual energy consumption. Final decisions on what types of programs will be enacted is up to the state Public Utilities Commission.