Obama pushes green standards for everything but the kitchen sink

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The Obama administration is working on new efficiency standards for seemingly every appliance but the kitchen sink.

Spurred by President Obama’s climate action plan, the Department of Energy is pumping out new standards for refrigerators, dishwashers, air conditioners, ceiling fans, furnaces, boilers, water heaters, lamps and many more appliances.

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The administration says the standards will not only help the planet but also stimulate the economy by saving consumers money on their energy bills that they can spend elsewhere.

But industry groups argue the standards, which will apply to both commercial and household appliances, could slow the economy, and that the Energy Department is rushing the new rules while overestimating the savings. Other critics argue the push to regulate household appliances is evidence of a nanny state.

“They’re not taking the time to get it right,” said Steve Yurek, president and CEO of the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute. “That’s what we’re concerned about,” he said.

As evidence of the rush, critics point to how the Energy Department has already finalized new efficiency standards for seven appliances in 2014, with another three rules expected by the end of the year. That compares to two rules in 2013 and three in 2012.

The department says the rules will save consumers $49 billion by 2030. 

A handful of efficiency standards for other appliances also have been proposed, but won’t be completed until after this year.

The rules will affect nearly every household in the country.

“We all have a microwave or a refrigerator or a dishwasher, so these rules do affect basically every American household,” said Sofie Miller, a researcher at The George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center.

Business groups say the new rules will be expensive for industry to comply with because it will require them to buy new technologies to develop appliances that emit less energy. That will raise the retail prices of household appliances, they say.  

“There are a lot of folks in the business community who don’t believe the benefits are as good as the Energy Department says they will be and that the agency is using flawed data to tip the scales in favor of more stringent regulations,” said Jon Melchi, director of government affairs for Heating, Air-conditioning and Refrigeration Distributors International.

Green groups and the Energy Department acknowledge the standards will lead to more expensive appliances but say consumers will save money in the long run on their energy bills.

“This can be a nice opportunity to save consumers money,” said Kathleen Hogan, deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the DOE.

Miller suggests that both sides could be right. She said the new efficiency standards will save wealthy consumers money in the long run, because they can afford to pay the higher costs for new household appliances. 

Lower-income consumers, however, will be at a disadvantage, she said. They will have a tough time paying for the more expensive appliances, and are likely to keep using older ones.

She also said that could defeat the environmental reasons for pushing the new rules.

“If you can’t afford a dishwasher, you’re stuck washing your dishes by hand,” Miller said, “which actually uses more water.”

Republicans played the rich-poor divide up during one of the most famous efficiency controversies: the ban on traditional incandescent light bulbs.

That episode also highlights how energy efficiency has become more of a partisan issue. The push for the new light bulbs started under President George W. Bush and initially had support from many Republicans. It then became a Tea Party rallying cry, and Obama’s embrace of energy efficiency led more in the GOP to become opponents.

The ban is pushing consumers to buy more expensive light bulbs, even as they save money on their energy bills. Republicans complain this puts lower-income consumers at a disadvantage because they’ll have a tougher time paying for the more expensive bulbs.

While many of the efficiency rules target household appliances, others focus on business appliances, such as commercial ice-makers, commercial refrigerators and walk-in coolers and freezers.

The Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute is challenging the later two rules in federal court. Yurek argues the rules could force as much as 40 percent of the industry out of business.

“The Energy Department is pushing as high as they can, and sometimes even higher than they should be in setting these efficiency standards,” Yurek said.

The Obama administration has shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Obama has made it clear that fighting climate change is one of his top priorities, something highlighted by news reports this week that the administration is seeking a new climate deal at the United Nations.

The goal of Obama’s climate plan is to reduce carbon pollution so much by 2030 that it would be equivalent to taking 44 million cars off the road, according to the Energy Department.

The push for tougher efficiency standards was initially ushered in with the 2009 stimulus bill, which included $16.8 billion for the Energy Department to promote efficiency.