What if you don’t want the air conditioner to turn off?

That is the question that currently bedevils the demand response industry, as well as the utilities and regulators that feverishly hope the industry can help keep a lid on peak power. Right now, demand response companies shave peak power consumption by throttling back on pool heaters and industrial equipment, but most of the gains come from turning down AC units.

Unfortunately, in many situations, their customers don’t want to or can’t throttle air conditioners. A hotel with an afternoon July wedding certainly won’t. Thus, the potential base of customers willing to sell “negawatts” is artificially limited.

Lighting networks, say several startups, will provide a way around that conflict. Adding overhead lights to the mix of appliances that can be turned down or shut off during a peak power event will effectively give consumers (office buildings, factories, health clubs) a way to fulfill negawatt obligations in a manner that better fits their needs.

A company might agree in advance to curb power by 300 kilowatts during a peak power event. But when the order comes due, lighting networks will give a company with skylights and open windows the option to fulfill the command by harvesting one-third of the savings from AC and two-thirds from overhead lighting.

Dampening plug loads -- curbing power to copy machines and other devices -- could be added to the mix, too, with better office networking.

“This lets you choose the way you want demand response to be implemented,” said Danny Yu, CEO of Daintree Networks, which has come up with a ZigBee-based network operating system for controlling energy in commercial buildings. Daintree now employs its networks to curb lights, but plans to move to other appliances.

Many of the lighting networking companies are already discussing ways to work with demand response providers.

“We’re in conversations with CPower (recently acquired by Constellation Energy), EnerNoc, Comverge,” said Cheryl Diuguid, the palindromic CEO of Lumetric, which has a lighting networking system for high-intensity discharge (HID) lights. “We’re moving quickly with Comverge.”

“We’re in discussions with Comverge and EnerNoc,” said Mike D’Amour, CEO of Lumenergi, which has a lighting networking system for fluorescents.

Comverge, meanwhile, has been talking about the shift from demand response to the more fluid demand management approach that would encompass more appliances.

Lumetric, in fact, already has a demand response console called the Smart Energy Framework. It’s a click-and-point interface that lets facilities managers determine power management and control.

 “You determine where to cut,” said Lumetric CTO Greg Davis.

Such a move could also help improve the image of demand response. If there is a word that comes up more than any other to describe demand response, it is, jokingly, “primitive.”

When a utility needs power, it makes a phone call to a demand response provider. The demand response provider in turn starts shutting down equipment. The phone call part is exaggerated, but that is how the industry started and the label comes up quite a bit.

“We could have two-way communication for dynamic load management,” said Davis.

And imagine: acquisition upon acquisition upon acquisition. Demand response meets building management meets lighting controls and ZigBee networks. It's the first day of camp, people. Meet some new friends.