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Power United States

California Utilities to Control Thermostats? 503

TeraBill writes "It seems that the California Energy Commission is looking to give utilities in the state the power to control the thermostats in private homes via a radio signal. The idea is that during times of significant energy crunch, the utilities could force thermostats to higher temperatures rather than having to implement a rolling blackout. The thermostats have been around for a while and new ones were on display at the CES show in Vegas this week. While I can see the argument for it, we just had a kid take over a tram system with a remote control, so how long before our thermostat gets hacked by the neighbors. And I'd almost rather have the power drop than have someone significantly raise the temperature in my home if I had a computer running there. (UPS and a graceful shutdown versus cooking something.)"
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California Utilities to Control Thermostats?

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  • Re:Reasonable idea (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 12, 2008 @06:47AM (#22012788)
    This is very old technology here in Canterbury New Zealand where the power companies have controlled water heating during the morning and evening peaks. It was done by injecting audio tones into the mains supply. The technology actually originated in WW2 in London to control the air-raid sirens.
  • Texas too... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 12, 2008 @06:59AM (#22012838)
    In Texas the cities offer free "high tech" thermostats... provided you let them be able to keep your A/C powered off for 15-20 minutes per hour on peak times.

    I'll pass. If the temperature is cracking 100, there is a reason I bought my HVAC system, and that is to keep my place at a bearable temperature, not allow someone else to set it the way they want.
  • Re:Reasonable idea (Score:5, Interesting)

    by caitriona81 ( 1032126 ) <sdaugherty AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday January 12, 2008 @07:04AM (#22012872) Journal
    Here's an idea. Instead of the current typical 200amp service, everybody gets a 20amp service that is "always on", and a 200 amp service that's subject to rolling blackouts. That gives consumers the power to choose what loads will be shit down. It would be a little more complex for metering, but, much more effective, and easier to "convince" homeowners to retrofit. (Look... we can give you SOME power that doesn't go out...).

  • by gerardlt ( 529702 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @07:26AM (#22012992)
    There already exists devices for dropping loads when the supply frequency droops - a sign that the generation is not meeting the load. These are designed specifically for areas where generation will occasionally be insufficient, like developing countries. Now that North America is in the same boat (and the rest of the 'western' world is probably going to follow the same course), why not start using these things.

    It wouldn't be hard to develop a small micro-controller driven box that would watch the mains supply frequency and apply small adjustments to a thermostat setting as required.
  • deadly to humans (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dltaylor ( 7510 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @08:00AM (#22013180)
    My wife takes medication that makes her very sensitive to heat. In her state of health, raising the temperature could kill her.

    No way they'll put that in without me having a backup (as we do now).
  • by Rick17JJ ( 744063 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @08:29AM (#22013334)

    That reminds me of something that happened at a college back in the 1970s during the energy crisis, when everyone was asked to save energy by lowering their thermostats to 68 degrees. I was taking some classes at a Junior College in Arizona at the time. They lowered the thermostats to 68 degrees during the winter to save energy, as requested, and then several weeks later they discovered that the air conditioning system had come on automatically to get the building down to 68 degrees.

    Will these proposed new radio-controlled thermostats be designed well enough to avoid those kinds of mistakes? I still remember riding in a few cars from the 1970s which had government required seat-belt warning devices reminding people to buckle-up. It was annoying when the device could sense the weight of groceries on the passenger seat and repeatedly complain about that person not being buckled up. I suspect these new thermostats will end up annoying some home owners by making similar unfair stupid errors.

    Personally, I think that well insulated energy efficient homes with a smaller capacity air-conditioner should be exempt from needing a radio-controlled thermostat for their air-conditioner. Suppose someone has a home with something like R-28 walls, extra insulation in the ceiling, extra insulation on the ducts and double-pane low-e glass in the windows. They are saving plenty of energy already. On the other had there are many homes out there with R-11 walls and single-pane windows. Since they are the ones that are using most of the energy, they should be the only ones to get the big-brother controlled thermostat.

    Evaporative coolers should also be exempt from needing these special thermostats, since they use less energy anyway. Furthermore, if someone has a solar powered evaporative cooler, it should definitely be exempt. I don't know much about solar evaporative coolers, but apparently they use a photovotaic solar panel to generate the power to run the pump and fans and whatever is required to make an evaporative cooler work. By the way, from what I recall, evaporative coolers don't always cool as well, especially when the humidity rises.

    Someone who built his own solar powered evaporative cooler [voltscommissar.net]

  • by pla ( 258480 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @08:31AM (#22013348) Journal
    not to mention malls, offices, restaurants and other businesses.

    Oh, no, they won't install them in any commercial location, only private homes. Making people uncomfortable in their own homes, no problem; Interfering with Holy Commerce, now, they just don't play games there. Won't happen.

    Remember, this involves a state that has to pump in water from two states away because of regular yearly droughts that make the US SouthEast this year look like a bunch of crybabies, yet when they implement watering bans, they exempt businesses; And even on mornings when they do actually get a bit of rain, those businesses will still leave the sprinklers on, because it costs less than having Jose drop by and manually interrupt the cycle.

    In any other state, I'd consider this proposal offensive enough to incite riots. But California? Heh. Relax and just watch the show.
  • by Ed Avis ( 5917 ) <ed@membled.com> on Saturday January 12, 2008 @08:45AM (#22013436) Homepage
    It's a bizarre system that charges an uneconomic price for energy and then wants to compensate for that by controlling the thermostat in your home. When there is a shortage of power the wholesale price of energy rises. Charge households the true cost of the electricity they use (which will sometimes be more than the current rate, sometimes less) and if you want to install a thermostat that automatically reduces its power consumption when power is expensive, that's up to you. It would depend on your own individual preferences - perhaps most of the time you're not prepared to spend more than $0.20 per hour to keep your room cool, but if you feel unwell or you have guests staying (or you are making pastry) you could program your thermostat to spend more money. Then the scare electricity is allocated to those who are most prepared to pay for it.

    I don't mean that power companies should be able to gouge consumers for whatever they can get. Obviously the retail price should be regulated to not exceed the wholesale price by more than a small fixed amount.
  • by Latent Heat ( 558884 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @09:41AM (#22013760)
    You can always hack that 4-degree swing in the thermostat. Too warm? Use a blow dryer to "persuade" your thermostat that it is too warm to get the AC to kick in.
  • Why stop there? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @09:59AM (#22013854) Homepage

    This seems like a reasonable idea...

    Then lets apply it in a lot more places. Remote locks on refrigerators when you've eaten enough for the day. Or cut off your water when you've used your quota. Maybe a machine that dispenses your cigarettes for the day ala 5th Element. Maybe the government thinks you should exercise more so they regulate your TV time. Because, let's face it, a technical solution is just so much more effective than education.

    Every really insane piece of regulation started with a reasonable idea.

    I think a better solution would be some type of feedback that showed people the demand on the grid and let them throttle their own electricity usage. If that feedback mechanism showed them ways to shift their electricity usage to less expensive times of the day and shows them how much money they saved it would be almost as effective in a much less dickish, Dick Cheney kind of way.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 12, 2008 @10:05AM (#22013894)
    1) why are they proposing to mandate these remote-control thermostats in private residences instead of government buildings?
    2) why don't they just shut down the state and local governments on days when power usage looks like it might spike enough to overload the grid? I.e. tell the government employees to just stay home like state governments in the north-east do for snowstorms and leave all the government buildings set at the lowest-energy-use level necessary to prevent damage to each building's infrastructure?

    Significantly reducing the government's use of energy below even the level necessary for the government to operate for the limited duration of a predicted energy emergency would preclude a need for the government to usurp control of private citizen's homes but as this is California the regulators would much rather establish a new foothold of control over private behavior than exercise existing control over the state government's behavior.
  • Re:Reasonable idea (Score:4, Interesting)

    by goaliemn ( 19761 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @10:39AM (#22014116) Homepage
    Here, in Minnesota, I have this already in my house. Hooked up to my air conditioner is a relay that the power company can shut down during peak usage time. I get a discount on my bill for having it (10 or 15% during the summer) and they only shut it off for a maximum of 15 minutes at a time, no more than once every 2 hours, so it doesn't have any major impact on the temp of my house.
  • Re:Reasonable idea (Score:3, Interesting)

    by aurispector ( 530273 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @12:08PM (#22014946)
    Hear, hear! Some of the other ideas are ok- getting a discount for adding a relay, etc., so long as there is a payback for lack of service, however none of them address the root of the problem. Where I live, the utilities have an agreement with some local high-consumption industrial facilities to shut down during peak consumption times like heat waves. No further measures have been needed.

    What I just can not believe is that people are actually putting up with the kind of bullshit they are shoveling in California. Why aren't they screaming to get more power plants built? Why aren't folks putting up solar panels and selling the excess back to the grid? Anything to increase the supply. It's one thing to be willing to pay for electricity, it's another to put up with insufficient supply.
  • by goofy183 ( 451746 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @12:21PM (#22015082)
    MG&E in Wisconsin has been offering this as a voluntary service for a while: http://www.mge.com/home/services/power_cntl.htm [mge.com]

    The idea is you get a $25 credit for having this installed and then $8/hour of shutoff time and they specific times when they will not shut off your AC. I've seriously thought about it since the possible shutoff times are pretty much while I'm at work.
  • Re:Reasonable idea (Score:4, Interesting)

    by caitriona81 ( 1032126 ) <sdaugherty AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday January 12, 2008 @12:32PM (#22015204) Journal
    Time-of-use rates kindof do this - encouraging cutbacks at peak times. Most power companies that do this offer this as an option, so adoption has probably been slower than expected. Basically, the way it works, the power company installs a meter that records not only power consumption, but when that consumption occurs. In exchange for allowing the power company to meter usage in this manner, the customer gets a sharply discounted rate during off-peak hours. However, during on-peak hours, rates are significantly higher. The utility companies, with the consent of regulators, could make these rates mandatory. The resulting jumps from say, $0.08/KwH to, $0.75/KwH or more would probably encourage enough "voluntary" cutbacks to allow time for a long term solution.
  • Oh... I want. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tatarize ( 682683 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @01:03PM (#22015530) Homepage
    Oh, I want that. Seriously the ability to monitor every wall socket and tell how much power drain each one is taking. Code up some optimization routines, give access to the power company to certain appliances in my house and get a little kickback money-wise.

    So long as they don't know what they are turning off, I get something for the added inconvenience, and I specifically give them access rights myself: I have no qualms with that.

    Though a massive solar array in death valley would probably be easier... it gets really hot... it's sunny and we have extra peak power flowing in. Honestly, California should buy up some rights to that new mass producing solar panel tech and setup a shop and start producing. Pave that hot (drive through during the night) part of the state with enough panels to provide peak power to the western part of the country. That, and eastern Washington should just be a windfarm.
  • Re:Reasonable idea (Score:3, Interesting)

    by stonecypher ( 118140 ) <stonecypher@@@gmail...com> on Saturday January 12, 2008 @01:58PM (#22016144) Homepage Journal

    Why aren't they screaming to get more power plants built?
    They are. It's NIMBY syndrome. Everyone wants the voltage, but nobody wants to live near a power plant. The coal fumes or the nuclear risk or the whatever's wrong with gas are all too scary. That's why the state has its solar programs: after state-run rebates, you can get solar basically for free. Why? Because people will actually do it. Don't get me wrong, I hate SDG&E with a passion. But, the infrstructure problem isn't their fault. They'd be selling more power if they could; it'd make their pockets fatter, don't forget. The problem is that you get four Californians together, and they can't agree on a set of three options. They get hit with all sorts of power problems, so they get amateur-activist and learn a quarter of the story. They won't fucking compromise with each other on energy, because each of them knows a different quarter - this guy wants solar, that guy wants nuclear, this other guy wants sugar beet ethanol, someone else wants wind and geothermal, none of them know a damn thing about the options they didn't choose, and none of them are willing to budge an inch.

    My across the hall neighbor in my San Diego condominium was convinced that nuclear power contributed to global warming, so he was certain we all had to build big wind farms on all our buildings, like that'd even provide enough juice to clean up all the bird corpses.

    The major problem with California's energy situation is that for this topic, its activism level is significantly above its education level. Therefore, it's pulling in eight directions at once, and getting nowhere.
  • by dindi ( 78034 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @02:24PM (#22016476)
    OK, I do not want on-star start and stop my car, lo-jack to see where I go, or the power company control my thermostats.

    Seriously. The US has to educate its citizens not to over-use energy by cooling their homes to 22C. I understand that airco is necessary in offices or workspaces, even homes at warm climates, but what is the point of moving to Miami when you have to wear winter jackets because you can freeze to death in: malls, restaurants, cars and buses, everywhere else.

    Most of the US people I know down here (in Costa Rica) maintain sub 22C in their offices, then they wonder why they have allergy, cough all the time and have cold symptoms. All this at 1200m height where in a properly built house you do not need airco at all. It is sunshine out there, middle of the dry season, and I have several computers running in a room (yes I am working on all of them, and they go offline when I am done).

    OH, if you come down here to visit the beaches: get a room without air-conditioning so you can enjoy the tropics as they are.

    PS: I do not mean to flame anyone, I really mean that the airco overuse has to go!
  • by Ironsides ( 739422 ) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @02:44PM (#22016692) Homepage Journal
    At the end of 1976, inflation was decreasing and had dropped to below 5%. When carter entered office it started going up again and kept on going up. Federal Reserve chairmen are one of the few positions that stay around administration to administration. Unless you're saying that Paul Volcker was incompetent under Carter but extremely smart under Reagan? Face it, Carter is the one who caused some of the worst inflation in US history.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 12, 2008 @03:22PM (#22017170)
    > he proposed and had passed, several laws that were meant to force conservation of oil and gas and to get us off our addiction to foreign oil.

    Including the banning of nuclear waste reprocessing in breeder reactors. As a former nukeE, Carter was worried about the proliferation risk instead of the energy crisis -- but he was dead fucking wrong. To this day, thanks to Carter, our nuclear plants take 5% of the energy out of their fuel, and put the other 95% into the waste stream for tens of thousands of years. By reprocessing that fuel and using it, we could extract 15-20 times more energy per unit of fuel input, cutting the mass of the waste stream by a similar order of magnitude, and the remaining crap would be very, very hot -- it would only be hazardous for a few centuries.

    I'm all for Yucca Mountain/WIPP... but with breeder reactors, we wouldn't need it, because we'd never generate enough waste to come remotely close to filling it.

    > Hell, if we'd have reduced our dependence on foreign oil in the '70s, we might not be fighting islamoliberalfasciofeminazis right now.

    Except that the same people that were for reducing dependence on foreign oil were also the same people against nuclear power.

  • by Reziac ( 43301 ) * on Saturday January 12, 2008 @03:37PM (#22017314) Homepage Journal
    This is probably being pushed by Edison. They already offer "free" monitoring devices that curtail energy use during peak periods. Remember that as the industry is currently set up, the LESS power you use, the MORE money they make. So they're all for conservation, because it profits EDISON.

    But the root of the problem isn't any "energy crunch" or even CA's very high usage. It's that a decade ago, some idiots decided "deregulation"** would be a wonderful idea, and did so.. but one of the requirements was that CA must sell all its generating plants. Which they did. To out of state and foreign interests... who now sell the power they produce (from plants formerly owned by CA_ back to CA at over 5 times the base price before "deregulation", with a rate structure that doesn't even allow you to run ONE LIGHT BULB before you get dinged for the highest possible rates (so the actual increase is somewhat more than 5x. My average bill went from $8 to $40 -- and I use 25% *less* power now than I did then. And my bill went up about 30% since last year even tho I've cut my usage *again*, by some 20%. Naturally my bill is much higher in winter, when I need to use the electric heaters.)

    **CA copied the Montana Power model, blithely ignoring the fact that MT Power's "deregulation" was a scam perpetrated by MT Power's owners as an exit strategy -- I forget the details but it put millions in their own pockets, devalued MT Power's stock value to essentially zero (destroying the retirement funds many MT residents had counted on), and quadrupled the cost of electricity in MT... where probably half of all homes have electric heat, because that used to be cost-effective if you couldn't get natural gas (the cheapest option).

    Los Angeles' then-mayor Reardon (THE man we need for President!) saw through this scam and refused to join in, despite massive pressure from Sacramento. So Los Angeles still owns its generating system, and L.A. residents still enjoy low rates and freedom from rolling blackouts.

    I foresee a thriving market in portable heaters/coolers, followed by prohibitions on the sale of such devices. (Roof-mounted swamp coolers are already illegal in Palmdale CA!)

  • by Reziac ( 43301 ) * on Saturday January 12, 2008 @03:54PM (#22017488) Homepage Journal
    My house is over 50 years old, and was built before houses in CA were insulated at all. There is NONE in the walls (the R-35 in the attic I put there myself), and it has single-pane windows, because that's how houses were built back then. After all, this is California, we don't need no steenkin' insulation!

    Now, I've priced having the house updated (insulation blown into the walls, replace all the windows with double-pane models). Total cost would be somewhere around $10,000. (Somewhat higher if it were done one piece at a time.) I don't know about your money tree, but mine died in the drought, and I sure as hell couldn't cough up that much at once, nor could I pay the $30,000 *total* it would cost if it were financed. (Interest winds up being about double the principal.)

    But hey, just cuz I don't make the kind of money that lets *you* buy a new house, it's fine to decree that *I* get to freeze and fry.

    BTW my house is hardly unique. Probably half the homes in California, and nearly ALL of those built here before ~1975, are in this same boat. And a majority of these are rentals, or owned by retired people, or by lower-income folks who really can't afford to do major upgrades.

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