Lesley Clark, E&E News reporter
Published: Monday, January 13, 2020
The Department of Energy is publishing the first new national energy efficiency standards since 2017, prodded by a federal court that faulted the Trump administration for dragging its feet for nearly three years.
The new conservation measures will save consumers and businesses about $8.4 billion, DOE estimates. They'll also cut climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 100 million metric tons over three decades, roughly equivalent to taking 21 million cars off the road for a year.
The standards — which were finalized by the Obama administration but delayed under President Trump — cover four products, including two that can be found in some homes and businesses: portable air conditioners and uninterruptible power supplies that protect computers and other devices during blackouts. The other two are commercial boilers and industrial-size air compressors.
Energy efficiency advocates decried the delay but hailed the final standards, published Friday in the Federal Register, three months after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that DOE had violated its own rules by delaying publication (E&E News PM, Oct. 10, 2019).
"They didn't want to publish these rules; the court told them they had to," said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project advocacy group, who called it a "significant victory; these are significant savings."
The new measures come as Trump wages a rhetorical war on energy efficiency standards on the campaign trail, invoking a preference for old-fashioned lightbulbs and complaining that it takes too many flushes to clear a toilet bowl (Greenwire, Dec. 13, 2019).
His administration, which has unsuccessfully sought to slash spending for the DOE office that oversees the efficiency standards program, last month blocked the planned phaseout of less-efficient lightbulbs, a move that critics say could create the need to generate an additional 30 large power plants' worth of electricity every year (Energywire, Dec. 23, 2019).
DOE marked that decision with a press release and a celebratory tweet from Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, who said the administration was protecting consumer choice by reducing "unnecessary overregulation." Brouillette went on Fox News that night, telling host Tucker Carlson the move would "stop the insanity."
The department did not issue a press release — or tweet — on the four new standards and did not reply to a request for comment.
Several of Trump's Democratic presidential rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have pledged to strengthen efficiency standards for appliances as part of their plans to counter climate change.
The Obama administration finalized more DOE conservation standards than the previous two administrations combined as part of a broader climate strategy, but Trump has sought to roll back many Obama-era environmental regulations that he views as burdening industry (Greenwire, Jan. 9).
DOE is expected soon to publish the final version of changes to its "process rule" under which new efficiency standards are developed. Efficiency advocates say the changes would hand over too much control to industry.
Product manufacturers and the department say the concerns are overblown and that the rules being revised are outdated. They say the updates will allow the department and its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to focus on setting new standards for products that can deliver significant energy or water savings.
The changes come as the department has endorsed a petition from the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, which would create a class of dishwashers that complete the task in less than an hour.
The fast-acting dishwashers would be exempt from current energy efficiency standards. Critics say a federal anti-backsliding law prohibits new standards from being weaker than the existing standard. CEI's Ben Lieberman has claimed some standards are reaching a point of diminishing returns and that critics, "given the current political climate, will oppose everything" (Energywire, Nov. 12, 2019).
The four new standards were posted on DOE's website during the last month of the Obama administration but were subject to a 45-day period in which errors could be flagged.
Though only one error was noted, DOE did not complete the process after Trump's January 2017 inauguration, prompting a lawsuit from environmental groups, 13 attorneys general, the California Energy Commission and the city of New York (E&E News PM, June 13, 2017).
DOE had argued that it had the discretion to decide when to publish the rules after the 45-day period.
The appeals court, however, upheld lower court findings that DOE had a "duty to submit all four rules for publication in the Federal Register within 30 days after the error-correction process ended."
The administration's refusal to finalize the standards for the four products resulted in continued emissions and a loss of savings, as well as a decision by several states to act on their own, deLaski said.
There was no prior federal standard for three of the four products — portable air conditioners, uninterruptible power supplies and industrial air compressors — allowing states to set their own guidelines.
Vermont, California, Washington and Colorado have already adopted the standards for the products, deLaski said.