Published: January 11, 2008

Nytimes.com
 

SAN FRANCISCO — The conceit in the 1960s show “The Outer Limits” was that outside forces had taken control of your television set.

Next year in California, state regulators are likely to have the emergency power to control individual thermostats, sending temperatures up or down through a radio-controlled device that will be required in new or substantially modified houses and buildings to manage electricity shortages.

The proposed rules are contained in a document circulated by the California Energy Commission, which for more than three decades has set state energy efficiency standards for home appliances, like water heaters, air conditioners and refrigerators. The changes would allow utilities to adjust customers’ preset temperatures when the price of electricity is soaring. Customers could override the utilities’ suggested temperatures. But in emergencies, the utilities could override customers’ wishes.

Final approval is expected next month.

“You realize there are times — very rarely, once every few years — when you would be subject to a rotating outage and everything would crash including your computer and traffic lights, and you don’t want to do that,” said Arthur H. Rosenfeld, a member of the energy commission.

Reducing individual customers’ electrical use — if necessary, involuntarily — could avoid that, Dr. Rosenfeld said. “If you can control rotating outages by letting everyone in the state share the pain,” he said, “there’s a lot less pain to go around.”

While the proposals have received little attention in California, the Internet and talk radio are abuzz with indignation at the idea.

The radio-controlled thermostat is not a new technology, though it is constantly being tweaked; the latest iterations were on display this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the major utility in Northern California, already has a pilot program in Stockton that allows customers to choose to have their air-conditioning systems attached to a radio-controlled device to reduce use during periods when electricity rates are at their peak.

But the idea that a government would mandate use of these devices and reserve the power to override a building owner’s wishes galls some people.

“This is an outrage,” one Californian said in an e-mail message to Dr. Rosenfeld. “We need to build new facilities to handle the growth in this state, not become Big Brother to the citizens of California.”

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