There's Still Time for the California Energy Commission to Fix the Drought Rebate Program

In the flurry of bills that were passed before the California Legislature adjourned for the year, one critical program was overlooked--the California Energy Commission's recently proposed clothes washer replacement rebate program, which would have provided a $100 rebate to households that replace their old clothes washer with a new ENERGY STAR model. The Energy Commission conservatively estimates that this program would have saved more than 664 million gallons of water each year (or enough water to do more than 51 million loads of laundry)--a significant amount of water during what is the most severe drought that California has seen in at least 1,200 years. The rebate program also would have led to significant energy savings and by doing so, reduced more than 10,000 metric tons of carbon emissions each year.

Unfortunately, funding for this much-needed program got tied up in broader discussions about how cap-and-trade auction revenue should be spent on California's transportation infrastructure. We will now likely have to wait until next year for funding to be appropriated before the rebate program can launch. In the interim, hundreds of millions of gallons of precious drinking water will needlessly go to waste.

This legislative misstep, however, provides an opportunity for the Energy Commission to make a much-needed change to the program that will increase water and energy savings. In recent comments, we strongly urged the Energy Commission to reconsider its decision not to require rebate applicants to submit documentation showing proper recycling of their old appliance. Such a requirement is necessary to ensure that the program maximizes actual water and energy savings. While we support a simple rebate redemption process to encourage households to participate, the pursuit of simplicity should not undermine the core purpose of the rebate program, which is to save water during and after the drought.

This relatively simple additional step is necessary to ensure that old, inefficient clothes washers being replaced are properly recycled (i.e., scrapped) instead of transferred to other households where they continue to waste both water and energy. Industry surveys suggest that more than half of all old, working clothes washers being replaced are likely to find their way back into service. The transfers of old machines to other locations would negate much, if not all, of the appliance rebate program's water and energy savings.

Requiring this documentation would not be excessively burdensome to rebate applicants nor would it be unprecedented. Applicants will already be submitting supporting documentation, such as a sales receipt and proof-of-purchase, as part of the application process. Additionally, the state's previous Cash for Appliances program--which used federal stimulus funding back in 2010 to incentivize the purchase of more than 178,000 energy efficient appliances and equipment, including more than 88,000 ENERGY STAR clothes washers--required rebate applicants to submit documentation showing that their previous appliance was properly recycled. By all accounts, this program was fully successful and enormously popular, as more than $33 million in rebate funding was exhausted in the span of just eight months.

Staff at the Energy Commission should be commended for working feverishly since Governor Brown's April executive order to launch the rebate program without excessive delay. But the statewide rebate program envisioned in the Governor's executive order was intended to provide an incentive for the replacement of an inefficient washer currently in use, which means sending your old water-guzzling washer to the scrap pile instead of to your brother-in-law's house. While the rebate program is on hold, the Energy Commission should use this opportunity to make sure that it gets all of the details right by requiring evidence of proper recycling of old washers. By doing so, we can be confident that the state will be getting the biggest bang for our energy- and water-saving bucks.


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