Monday, January 14, 2008

Don't Touch That Dial!

UPDATE: below

California wants to revise its building energy efficiency standards, known as Title 24, to require that new commercial building and homes (or new HVAC installations) include a "programmable communicating thermostat" or PCT. (A RedState article includes a picture of a PCT.) PCTs contain an embedded one-way radio link allowing the utility to override customer thermostat settings.

Revised Section 112(c) (pages 70-71) would read, in part:
(c) Thermostats. All unitary heating and/or cooling systems including heat pumps that are not controlled by a central energy management control system (EMCS) shall have a Programmable Communicating Thermostat (PCT) that is certified by the manufacturer to the Energy Commission to meet the requirements of Subsections 112(c)(1) and 112(c)(2) below: . . .
2. Communicating Capabilities. All PCTs shall be distributed with a non-removable Radio Data System (RDS) communications device that is compatible with the default statewide DR communications system , which can be used by utilities to send price and emergency signals. PCTs shall be capable of receiving and responding to the signals indicating price and energy events as follows.
A. Price Events. The PCT shall be shipped with default price-event offsets of +4°F for cooling and -4°F for heating enabled; however, customers shall be able to change the offsets and thermostat settings at any time during price events. Upon receiving a price-event signal, the PCT shall adjust the thermostat setpoint by the number of degrees indicated in the offset for the duration specified in the signal of the price event. The PCT shall also be equipped with the capability to allow customers to define setpoints for heating and cooling in response to price signals as an alternative to temperature-offsetting response. . ..

B. Emergency Events. Upon receiving an emergency signal, the PCT shall respond to commands contained in the emergency signal, including changing the setpoint by any number of degrees or to a specific temperature setpoint. The PCT shall not allow customer changes to thermostat settings during emergency events.
The Title 24 revisions are currently in a 45-day comment period; final adoption is scheduled for January 30th and would take effect in April 2009.

The PCT proposal initially attracted little attention; however, according to Friday's New York Times (hyperlinks added):
[T]he Internet and talk radio are abuzz with indignation at the idea. . .

The broader stir on the Internet began when Joseph Somsel, a San Jose-based contributor to the publication American Thinker, wrote an article a week ago on the programmable communicating thermostat, or P.C.T.

Mr. Somsel went after the proposal with arguments that were by turns populist (“Come the next heat wave, the elites might be comfortably lolling in La Jolla’s ocean breezes” while “the Central Valley’s poor peons are baking in Bakersfield”), free-market (“P.C.T.’s will obscure the price signals to power plant developers”) and civil libertarian (“the new P.C.T. requirement certainly seems to violate the ‘a man’s home is his castle’ common-law dictum”).

Word of the California proposal hit the outrage button in corners of the Internet, was written about in The North County Times in Southern California, and got a derisive mention on Wednesday on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program.
I understand the anger as the increasingly intrusive "nanny state" threatens "human freedom," especially regarding environmental issues in California. But I'm not nearly as troubled as Rush, et. al, for several reasons: My objection to mandating PCTs is more abstract: for generations, California -- and its utility hostile, borderline socialist, California Public Utilities Commission -- regulated energy from cloud-cuckoo land, without regard to market economics. Population and power consumption rose, but bureaucrats -- aided by Hollywood airheads -- blocked building new gas terminals and nuclear plants, imagining instead that costly "green power" renewables could fill the gap. The state froze retail prices while underlying energy costs skyrocketed and blocked long-term energy supply contracts, forcing one of the two largest utility companies into bankruptcy.

Here's the point: intrusive measures wouldn't be mooted today had California understood "the scarcity safeguards implicit in market supply and demand." As Ryan Anderson wrote in the September 24, 2007 Weekly Standard (subscription only):
To the central economic question--how to deal with a scarcity of resources--there are three possible answers: force, altruism, or exchange. Because men ought not be beasts, and are not angels, scarcity is best resolved by exchange in the market economy.
Were utilities permitted to create and transport the least expensive form of energy -- coal, LNG, nuclear or whatever -- and charge consumers at market price, supply would be less variable and blackouts would be mitigated. Variable peak-load pricing itself is a signal consumers can read--allowing each consumer to choose between lower AC and higher bills.

At the margin, California's PCT proposal has some positives: the price data utilities transmit under draft Section 112(c)(2)(A) (page 71) will provide consumers with real-time cost information, allowing more informed individual decisions about setting furnaces and air conditioners. But, had California energy regulators not departed from economic reason for decades, commandeering your thermostat by remote control might never have been necessary.


For the reasons explained above, I think Jonah Goldberg's Sunday LA Times column overreacts to the PCT proposal; he's right about other nanny-state intrusions.


From the North County (California) Times:
In an about-face, the California Energy Commission plans to give customers final control over the energy-saving thermostats that are to be required in new homes, Claudia Chandler, the commission's assistant executive director, said Friday.

The so-called Programmable Communicating Thermostats are called for in a pending revision to state building codes.

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.
(via Knowledge Problem)

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