New plan to control electricity usage stirs controversy

To some, it's a simple, necessary step to safeguard the public. To others, an Orwellian nightmare.

Next year, California lawmakers will fit homes and buildings with special radio-controlled thermostats to help manage electricity shortages. The utility will transmit a suggested temperature setting through the Internet to local radio transmitters, which will then forward it via radio to the homes.

Consumers are allowed to override the suggested setting if they wish-- except when energy prices are soaring. At that point, the utility can dictate the temperature to reduce electricity demand, and avoid the possibility of outages.

The new rules, circulated by the California Energy Commission, would apply only to new and remodeled homes and buildings, for now. In the future, the program could be expanded to all structures.

Joseph Somsel, a San Jose-based journalist, attacked the proposal as yet another encroachment on civil liberties. He also worries that the signals could potentially be hacked, with possibly severe consequences.

"That's not possible," says California utility PG&E spokesperson Nicole Tam, because, "radio pages are encrypted and encoded."

To others, the state should focus on increasing capacity, rather than forcing residents to reduce demand. In an email to the Energy Commission, a Californian called the prooosal an outrage. "We need to build new facilities to handle the growth in the state, not become Big Brother to the citizens of California," it stated.

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates

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