The offer to grant control

I thought about adding it to an upcoming edition of odds and ends but decided this needed to be promoted to its own column. A few days ago I commented on a story in The Brenner Brief regarding an Ohio woman who was fighting her local utility over the installation of a “smart meter” and I added that our power company sends us a card each spring with an offer to have a new two-way thermostat installed.

Indeed, just like the swallows of Capistrano (or, for something closer to my birthplace, the buzzards of Hinckley, Ohio) it seems like a sure sign of spring is that mailing from Delmarva Power, and I received it earlier this week. Promoting the theme of “5 Things you may not know about Energy Wise Rewards Maryland” it claims the following:

  • 25,000 Marylanders have already joined Energy Wise Rewards, or 1 out of 7 eligible homes in the region.
  • Energy Wise Rewards has reduced customer bills by more than $3 million.
  • Energy Wise Rewards avoids generating 27 million watts of energy per conservation period, supposedly enough electricity to power 10,000 homes for one hour.
  • More than 25,000 Energy Wise Rewards devices are installed in our area, with a goal of 54,000 by year’s end.
  • During a conservation period, the program removes more than 125,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air, like taking 24,000 cars off the road.

So their goal is to be in about 1/3 of the eligible homes by the end of the year, which would maybe save enough electricity to perhaps supply three homes for a year per conservation period. Three whole homes!

And if you take the $160, split between an $80 installation credit and up to $80 in annual reward credits, I can see where the $3 million figure comes from. In actual electricity costs to the utility, assuming there are 30 conservation periods a year, your savings might be a buck or two. (A home uses roughly 1,000 kilowatt hours a month.)

Yet what do you give up? The right to maintain your home at a temperature you choose. The flyer notes:

…on select summer Peak Savings Days, we’ll cycle off and on your (central air conditioning or heat pump) unit for short intervals (conservation periods.)

Your A/C compressor will continue to run for part of the time it did prior to the conservation period. You can expect a 1- to 3-degree rise in temperature, but most people don’t notice a change at all. (Emphasis mine.)

You might like your home at 72 degrees in the summer, but they want it to be 75 degrees.

Of course, when I worked a regular work schedule several years ago, I had a much simpler plan: I turned off my a/c when I went to work and turned it back on when I came home. I would keep the thermostat at 75 and normally when I walked in the door it would be 80 to 84 degrees in the house – an hour later, generally the time I finished my walk, it would be 75 degrees. It was a good system which fit my needs.

But if I bowed to Delmarva Power’s demands, it seems to me my cooling process would take a lot longer as the unit cycles on and off, never mind the wear and tear on the unit. And once you cede control for this purpose, what’s to say they won’t decide someday – in the name of conservation – to cycle it off completely until your home is warm enough for the temperature they say is best? (Generally the recommendation is 78 degrees.)

All this nanny statism is brought to you by a nasty bill which was passed in 2008 called the EmPOWER Maryland Energy Efficiency Act of 2008. And while the bill doesn’t allow a utility to directly regulate one’s thermostat – yet – that may become an option if the state decides on more ambitious goals beyond the 2015 end date of what’s being termed EmPOWER 2.0.

Don’t get me wrong: if energy efficiency is something you want, I encourage you to study the costs and benefits of making improvements. (A good payback period to me is five years or less; for example, if putting in a new energy-efficient climate control system costs $2,000 but saves you $400 annually in heating bills, it’s a good investment. But if it’s only saving you $100 a year, it’s not worth the outlay when it comes to energy efficiency. (Obviously repairs and upkeep can factor into this as well.)

If the state wants to make their facilities more energy efficient using the payback period I outlined above as a guide, well, knock yourselves out, kids. That seems to me a prudent investment, assuming of course the facility houses a legitimate government function.

But I’m very leery about putting a utility (and by extension, the government since this is a state mandate) in charge of my comfort. How we use our energy in our personal domicile should be up to us and the economic realities we face – obviously if we can’t afford a $1,500 fuel oil bill every winter, we have to turn down our thermostats or find cheaper alternative sources. But that’s a decision we as home occupants make, not someone at the utility company or state regulator.