Allow innovations, not serial mandates, to drive appliance efficiency

After eight years of a heavy-handed regulatory approach that included an unprecedented focus on home appliance efficiency standards, home appliance manufacturers welcome the early signs and talk from the Trump administration that point toward less regulation.

The Obama administration’s focus on efficiency standards was unmatched by any previous administration, to the point that it was responsible for about 40 percent of the home appliance energy standards created over the 30 year history of the federal appliance standards program. Each subsequent tightening of efficiency standards has produced less of a return than the previous one. Through a combination of market forces and the innovations of appliance manufacturers, many appliances are now operating at near maximum efficiency.

Further efficiency mandates, however well-intentioned they may be, may well come at the expense of appliance performance. The Department of Energy’s recent attempt to limit the amount of water used per cycle in dishwashers to 3.1 gallons—not a sufficient amount to cost effectively clean dishes—gave us a glimpse of what the future will hold if the heavy-handed approach continues.

The DOE later changed its analysis in response to stakeholder comments and did not finalize the proposal because the energy savings were not as significant as DOE originally believed and an increase in the stringency of standards would have resulted in costs to a significant percentage of consumers who purchased dishwashers that met the standard. The regulations have affected appliances that are mainstays in tens of millions of homes, like refrigerators and freezers, clothes dryers and room air conditioners.

Still, while a more balanced approach to federal efficiency standards is needed, scrapping the program entirely would also be a step backward that would potentially open the doors to a confusing patchwork of state standards that could hurt the ability of appliance manufacturers to continue to sell their products in all 50 states.

History tells us what that would look like. In the 1980s, President Reagan opposed national standards but supported allowing states to set their own. This created a blueprint for the development of inconsistent state appliance standards, and it led AHAM to help author and successfully advocate for the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act, which President Reagan signed into law and set a path for a more balanced federal regulation that preempts state actions. 

California, through a much less rigorous process, has already set standards for a few products not included in the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act and other states have followed suit. Eliminating federal appliance efficiency standards would be the first stitch in a new confusing patchwork of laws that is not good for the environment or the consumer.

Appliance manufacturers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing new, energy-efficient appliances. Their innovations have produced refrigerators that run on the same or less amount energy as a 50-watt incandescent light bulb. They have produced clothes washers that can hold 20 percent more laundry than they did in the year 2000.  Yet they are 70 percent more energy efficient. Now, their ventures into features like voice control and connectivity hold the potential to introduce consumers to new levels of convenience. Innovations, including those that have led to significant efficiency gains, are the norm in the industry, largely because consumers seek these changes.

A balanced approach is needed to end the serial rulemaking that is tied to nothing more than a repetitive timeframe mandated by law. There can be periodic reviews when justified while consistent national standards are preserved to ensure that manufacturers can continue to bring innovative and efficient appliances into consumers’ homes.

Home appliance manufacturers, whose products have an annual factory shipment value of nearly $40 billion, have taken an active role and worked with the Department of Energy on all efficiency standards. The industry stands ready to work with the Trump administration and Congress on reform measures to develop a more effective, transparent approach that fully considers the needs of all stakeholders and allows innovation and technology to drive future efficiency gains.

Joseph M. McGuire is president and CEO of the Association of home Appliance Manufacturers.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.