January 4, 2008
Who Will Control Your Thermostat?By Joseph Somsel
"There is nothing wrong with your thermostat. Do not attempt to adjust the temperature. We are controlling your power consumption. If we wish to make it hotter, we will turn off your air conditioner. If we wish to make it cooler, we will turn off your heater. For the next millennium, sit quietly and we will control your home temperature. We repeat, there is nothing wrong with your thermostat. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... SACRAMENTO!"*
Building codes and engineering standards are generally good things. Updating and improving codes and standards better protect us against earthquakes, for example, as we better understand the weak points and failure modes of existing construction techniques. Requirements that ensure proper handling of sanitary wastes can be largely credited with the increased life spans in industrialized countries through the reduction of communicable diseases.
In California, we have 236 pages of state-mandated standards for building energy efficiency, known as Title 24. This prescribes methods for calculating the sizes of your home windows, the capacities of your air conditioner and heater, the thickness of the insulation in your attic. A small cottage industry has sprung up to perform these engineering calculations that are required for any new commercial or residential construction or major change to existing structures. While I've never personally been involved in this branch of retail professional engineering, I've had colleagues who would moonlight doing Title 24 calcs. It is now just part of the mandated paperwork involved in the construction business these days in California.
A new revision to Title 24 is in the works for 2008 and it includes a number of improvements and enhancements that are largely good sense items and should be non-controversial. For example a new swimming pool will probably need larger diameter pipes between the pool, the filter and the pump than was former practice. This will reduce the fluid friction losses that your pump must overcome and hence reduce the pump's consumption of electricity, albeit at a minor increase in first cost for the larger pipes and fittings. Another good idea is a requirement for lighter colored shingles, the "Cool Roof Initiative." That is intended to reduce heat loss over cold winter nights by emission and heat gain on summer days by absorption. My neighbor and I both recently discovered that it is difficult to get roofers to NOT use dark colored shingles for some reason. Having a little state muscle behind us will help, especially for renters.
What should be controversial in the proposed revisions to Title 24 is the requirement for what is called a "programmable communicating thermostat" or PCT. Every new home and every change to existing homes' central heating and air conditioning systems will required to be fitted with a PCT beginning next year following the issuance of the revision. Each PCT will be fitted with a "non-removable " FM receiver that will allow the power authorities to increase your air conditioning temperature setpoint or decrease your heater temperature setpoint to any value they chose. During "price events" those changes are limited to +/- four degrees F and you would be able to manually override the changes. During "emergency events" the new setpoints can be whatever the power authority desires and you would not be able to alter them.
In other words, the temperature of your home will no longer be yours to control. Your desires and needs can and will be overridden by the state of California through its public and private utility organizations. All this is for the common good, of course.
In some technocratic worldview, it does have a justification. California's population growth and its affluence have strained the state's electric and natural gas resources. Famously, rolling blackouts have occurred due to shortages of electrical generation during peak periods. Unbeknownst to most citizens, short supplies of natural gas during cold weather have resulted in curtailments of delivery to industrial and large commercial customers. Those last kilowatts tend to be very expensive kilowatts and tend to drive up the average cost of electricity for all.
But the discomforts of compliance will fall unevenly across the state. Come the next heat wave, the elites might be comfortably lolling in La Jolla's ocean breezes or basking in Berkeley by the Bay, while the Central Valley's poor peons are baking in Bakersfield and frying in Fresno. California's coastal climate, where the elites live, seldom requires air conditioning. I've lived a middle class life style in Mill Valley, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo and now San Jose, and never have I lived in a home with air conditioning. Even in relatively warm San Jose, separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Coast Range, ceiling fans will get a family through the worst.
How will the state ensure compliance and prevent free riders? As above, coastal elites are already free riders as they will see the benefits while paying none of the costs except for the higher first cost of a PCT. For initial construction or home remodeling, it will be one of those items a building inspector will check before signing a certificate of occupancy. Replacing one's mandated PCT with a bootleg unit from Nevada should be within the skill of most homeowners. A low powered FM transmitter might easily be devised to override the broadcast commands for low cost. Even a metal wire shield around your PCT could block its FM reception. Adding a window air conditioner or an electric space heater are other work-arounds as neither have requirements for PCTs - yet. Sweating for the common good is for the chumps.
Another problem is that PCTs will obscure the price signals to power plant developers telling them that it will be profitable to build additional generation. As explained in this article, a deregulated electric market will come to resemble other commodity markets, like pork bellies, where shortages cause high prices that induce new capacity and low (or obscured) prices inhibit investment. When bacon prices are high, farmers arrange dates between their sows and their boars in hopes of future, profitable piglets. When bacon prices are low, farmers are more interested in chastity for their herds. If the state "shaves" peak loads by adjusting your thermostat during "price events," generators will not receive the higher prices. This effect will reinforce electrical shortages much like rent control discourages apartment building.
The real question poised by this invasion of the sanctity of our homes by state power is -- why are we doing this? It seems to me to be the wrong fix for a problem that we don't have to have. The common sense alternative is to build new power plants so that power shortages don't occur. Of course, they can't be coal or nuclear power plants! The coastal elites have their minds set against those undesirables. The state has wasted billions of our dollars on wind generation that hasn't helped to meet peak loads. For natural gas, offshore drilling should be considered. While we have one liquefied natural gas terminal in Mexico supplying us with Indonesian and, in the near future, Russian, LNG, another receiving terminal to be supplied by Australian LNG was rejected by the State Coastal Commission.
While nowhere in the Bill of Rights is there explicitly a right to set one's own thermostat to whatever temperature one desires (and is able to pay for), the new PCT requirement certainly seems to violate the "a man's home is his castle" common law dictum.
Californians have until January 30th to send their opinions and comments on the pending revisions to Title 24 to the California Energy Commission. Legislators too.
*With apologies to the creators of the TV science fiction series, "The Outer Limits."
 Specifically re "2008 Building Energy Efficiency Standards Docket # 07-BSTD-1." Try contacting Chris Gekas who is the process administrator of the proceedings at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Contact information for the state legislators is here: