This Is Not The Way: Locking People Out Of Their Thermostats

At the end of last month, a Colorado news channel ran a story about a bunch of customers who felt wronged by their utility company. The whole thing started when a record heat wave hit the state, straining the power grid with all of the unusual load from air conditioning. Some people were doing their normal thing in their homes when they thought the air conditioning system was struggling to keep up, so they ran to their thermostats only to find a message on the display:


The thermostats had been locked to almost 80 degrees, and customers couldn’t override the thermostat to bring temperatures down to comfortable levels in their own homes. “Normally, when we see a message like that, we’re able to override it,” one customer told Denver 7. “In this case, we weren’t. So, our thermostat was locked in at 78 or 79.”

Denver 7 was fair and asked the power company for their side of the story. It turns out that these customers had signed up for a program with Xcel (the local power utility) to get lower prices and some rebates, along with a programmable thermostat to help lower their energy usage. Normally, when thermostats go into a low power (and high temperature) mode, customers who are home can override them, leading to reduced power usage among people who either aren’t home or are willing to put up with higher temperatures.

But, this most recent heat wave was the first time in the six-year history of the program that the power company exercised their option to lock the thermostats and force everyone in the program to go with a higher temperature.

Xcel’s representative repeatedly told reporters that it’s a voluntary program, and that this was what customers signed up for, but it’s wildly apparent that thousands of the customers didn’t read the fine print and truly understand what they were getting themselves into. So, it’s questionable whether it was a truly voluntary program when there wasn’t informed consent.

But whether customers really signed up for this or were swindled is beside the point when there are many environmentally-minded people who don’t really care about consent when it comes to thermostats. Some politicians, activists, and even some utility companies want to control everybody’s thermostats and give nobody a choice of whether to opt into such an arrangement.

That’s why I’m going to discuss the pros and cons of this idea, and suggest some alternatives that won’t generate political problems for people trying to address climate change.

The Problem: It Breeds Resentment

I’m not about to argue that utility-controlled and/or government-controlled thermostats aren’t a workable solution to problems. It would obviously work at reducing energy usage. Nobody worth talking to will make the argument that it wouldn’t work at all.

The problem arises when we think about the people in the building with a remote-controlled thermostat. A tired and hot human is a cranky human, and a cranky human calls the local media, writes their congressman, or otherwise figures out some way to get their air conditioning back to putting the house at a comfortable temperature.

The sad thing is that if you ask people nicely, and let them know it’s important to other people’s well-being, many people will voluntarily do something for the common good. A recent emergency text message in California proves that just asking nicely and telling people that they can help their neighbors out leads to massive drops in power consumption–enough in fact to save the grid from trouble in dire circumstances.

And, before anybody assumes that people in a blue state are just nicer, the research on how people behave in disasters bears out that this is a general human behavioral trait. When faced with a crisis that doesn’t involve a divisive element, people go out of their way to help in ways that shock and amaze. Even after Hurricane Katrina, there was very little crime and violence. More problems were caused by false media reports of violence than any spontaneous violence.

So, doing this the hard way (by force or pressure) instead of the easy way (relying on the altruistic communitarian instincts most people have) isn’t even necessary.

This Matters Because People Vote

But, even if you think there are still good reasons to lower people’s energy consumption by force instead of with polite requests and more mild financial incentives like time-of-use pricing (another concept that research backs), there’s another compelling reason to not just stick it to people: the backlash it can cause.

When you tell people what to do and they resent it, they’ll see if they can figure out how to get the person doing that to not be in a position to do that anymore. In psychology, this is called the “boomerang effect,” and the intelligence community has a similar phenomenon called “blowback.”

The costs of governing this way often exceed any benefits, and ultimately get in the way of the desired benefits even happening at all.

Instead, Let’s Solve This Problem With Technology Instead Of Big Brotherism

The great thing is that better alternatives already exist. We just need to keep implementing them. I know for most readers, I’m going to be preaching to the choir here, but I think we need to take a look at how solar, storage, and efficiency help here just to drive the point home for our friends and family.

The good news when it comes to air conditioning demand is that it tends to mostly line up with the best times for solar energy production. The sun’s out making homes hot, and it’s also out shining on solar panels. So, the obvious answer is to get more solar panels on more roofs, and whenever possible put in enough to cover the needs of the air conditioners keeping what’s under that roof cooled off.

The obvious second ingredient in this recipe is storage. When it stays hot in the evening, having a battery pack that can keep the house or business cool for longer without straining the grid is obviously helpful. We need more of that.

With enough battery power in various places, voluntary programs like the Tesla Virtual Powerplants, Vehicle to Grid (V2G) technology, and many other things give people an opportunity to exercise that altruistic instinct and be part of the solution instead of the problem.

The best part of all this? Nobody has to play Thermostat Nazi to solve problems this way.

Featured image by ecobee, showing one of their smart thermostats in use.


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