Saturday, January 12, 2008

Regulating Power Usage in the Very Near Future

An article in the NY Times on Jan 11th talked about a proposal in California that would allow state regulators to have the emergency power to control individual thermostats, changing the temperature settings through a radio signal in all new of substantially modified houses and buildings. This would allow them to reduce the electricity demands during peak periods if it was necessary to avoid rolling blackouts. Customers could override the utilities' suggested temperature settings, but in emergencies the utilities could override the customers' wishes. The proposal is expected to be approved next month.

As you might expect, there has been a strong negative reaction to this. "Shades of 1984" was a common theme, thought the novel "1984" was mainly about thought control, not temperature control. Much of the negative reaction was predictable and understandable. It is troublesome to see aspects of denial of the power problem in some of the attitudes though. The situation is serious, and is likely to get worse each coming year. Some sort of change in the way people use electrical power is absolutely required, one way or another.

A compromise that is much more acceptable to most people is surely possible. It is likely to take both a carrot and stick approach. The carrot - significant discounts to people who voluntarily sign up for such control in emergencies. This could apply to old as well as new houses. The stick - a substantial increase in the price of electricity during critical peak periods for people who do not participate. The stick may have to be substantial, perhaps a 10x increase in the price of electricity during those peak periods. If rolling blackouts still do happen, there will be a tendency to blame those not participating with the program, generating strong social pressure for people to behave responsibly and voluntarily accept the carrot part of the deal.

Yes, this is not the way things worked as we were growing up. But yes, it is something we can and will get used to.

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