Energy bill raises appliance standards

Energy experts have said for years that power costs could be reduced and greenhouse gas emissions slashed by improving things like how efficiently a dishwasher uses electricity or a furnace burns natural gas.

But for just as long, advocates have been frustrated by delays in the issuance of new energy efficiency standards that account for improvements in technology, a consequence they say results from the lack of attention to the issue in Congress and the White House, as well as resistance among some businesses to proposed changes.

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As Congress takes up another massive energy bill, however, some see a (fluorescent) light at the end of the tunnel.

The bill is likely to include a number of new standards for commercial and residential appliances like boilers, battery chargers and walk-in coolers and freezers.

The single biggest, a phase-out of incandescent light bulb usage, translates into 100 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions being released annually by 2030, according to Lowell Ungar, a senior policy analyst at the Alliance to Save Energy, an energy efficiency group.

That is the equivalent of taking 20 million cars off the road, Ungar said.

The remaining appliance standards could cut an additional 90 million tons of projected carbon dioxide emissions, Ungar estimated.

“Energy efficiency is clearly the least costly and quickest approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and is kind of the easiest stuff,” he said.

Collectively, energy efficiency improvements, which go beyond appliance standards to include everything from stricter building codes to electric utility programs that encourage consumers to use less power, could cut the country’s total energy demands by as much as 20 to 50 percent, said Steven Nadel, the executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Energy efficiency is “incredibly important” to reducing global warming, Nadel said.

Efficiency improvements could account for as much as half of the needed greenhouse gas emission reductions, he said.

 But while energy efficiency programs are much less controversial than, say, the greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade program that was the subject of a Senate hearing Wednesday, the Energy Department, which is the responsible federal agency for efficiency programs, is notoriously slow in developing rules to implement congressional directives.

Nadel said administrations of both parties have not focused enough attention on improving the standards.

“This is a bipartisan problem,” he said.

The nine new standards in the energy bill would join a backlog of around 20 efficiency standards under development at the Department of Energy (DoE). Under a consent decree with environmental groups and others that challenged the agency in court, the department is moving to update many of those rules in the next few years.

Department officials have released two new standards relating to electricity transformers and home heating furnaces. But groups like ACEEE and the Alliance to Save Energy were critical of both efforts.

A new furnace standard could already be met by 99 percent of natural gas furnaces in use today, ACEEE, the Alliance and others noted in a press release.

“This standard is grossly inadequate,” David Goldstein, energy program co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

DoE officials said one problem they ran into was that they believed they did not have the authority to adopt regional standards. That inflexibility did not allow the department to take more aggressive action in colder Northern states that would benefit more from the efficiency improvements.

The House bill explicitly would give DoE the authority to develop regional appliance standards.

More important, advocates say, is the inclusion of a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) with a large efficiency component. Utilities would have to produce 15 percent of their power from renewable sources like wind and solar under the RPS crafted by House Democrats. But 4 percent of that target could be gained through improved energy efficiency programs.

Of the efficiency efforts in the bill, however, the RPS is likely to be the most controversial, and may be removed during Senate debate on the bill.

Another key piece, language that would require tough new building code improvements, was apparently kept out of the bill, in part over concerns that the federal rules would infringe on state authority to set building standards.

“That was a significant drop in the energy efficiency section,” Nadel said.    

Still, both Nadel and Ungar praised the energy bill, which will likely also include higher gas mileage standards, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE).

“A bill that had CAFE and consensus appliance standards and other green building programs would be a significant bill. It would be a major step in the right direction,” Ungar said.

“However, it would still leave a lot of energy savings on the table.”