Up to 20 efficiency rules backed up, some of them longer than a decade

Debate on the energy bill is focusing attention on a backlog of energy-efficiency standards at the Department of Energy (DoE) that, once issued, could sharply reduce consumers’ electricity bills.

The department is years behind schedule in releasing as many as 20 new or revised standards for home furnaces, air conditioners and other commercial and residential electrical appliances. In some instances, the department is more than a decade late.

“DoE is woefully behind,” said Lowell Ungar, a senior policy analyst at the Alliance to Save Energy, a group that supports energy-efficiency and other conservation programs.

“This goes back some time. It gets worse and worse.”

The new focus comes as House and Senate conferees agreed this week to 15 new energy-efficiency standards, as part of the comprehensive energy bill now being negotiated, drawing praise from Ungar and other efficiency advocates.

The department hasn’t issued a new efficiency rule since 2001, although it recently issued notices of intent for three rules.

The standards will save consumers and businesses up to $7 billion a year in energy costs, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

But they are still years away from being implemented, according to DoE.

New efficiency requirements established by the energy bill would affect commercial refrigerators, air conditioners, washers and ceiling fans.

While a far less controversial topic than expanding oil drilling or increasing mileage requirements for cars, efficiency standards can produce significant fuel savings. New efficiency requirements and conservation efforts have cut energy use over the past three decades by 40 percent, saving consumers billions of dollars, according to the Alliance.

Frustration over the rule backlog prompted lawmakers to agree to an amendment introduced by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) on Tuesday that would require the department to tell Congress whenever it misses a deadline to issue a new rule.

“If they are to successfully get rid of the backlog and take on the new mandate that we are giving them, they will need to change their ways,” Markey said, referring to Energy Department officials.

“I am hoping that the natural desire of the DoE bureaucracy to not have to keep reporting to Congress on their failure to carry out the law might actually lead them to implementing it in a timely fashion,” Markey said.

Ungar, of the Alliance, is a former congressional aide to Markey.

The congressman had originally pushed for a provision that would have allowed states to update federal standards on their own if the Energy Department was three years or more behind schedule. Supporters for that approach initially included Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), but support for it was dropped after appliance makers complained they would face a patchwork of standards that would raise costs.

Ungar said it hasn’t been industry pushback causing the delays at the department. In fact, the efficiency standards are usually the result of careful negotiations that are supported by appliance makers looking for some regulatory certainty.

The main cause has been budget shortfalls, Ungar said.

The division within the Energy Department that is responsible for the new rules — the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Division — last year received $10 million to implement the efficiency program. That’s not enough to pay for the staff to release new rules, which require reams of supporting documentation, Ungar said.

This year, the program stands to receive even less money. The department requested only $8.3 million for the program.