Appliance Standards Program: Decades of Using Energy Smarter

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

One of America’s most successful energy policies has been quietly chugging along for decades: delivering significant energy bill savings for consumers, sparking innovation and jobs, reducing the need to build new power plants, and cutting pollution that harms our health. A new NRDC fact sheet released today details just how much energy existing appliance and equipment energy efficiency standards are helping us save. (Hint: BILLIONS of dollars’ worth!) 


The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Appliance Standards Program today sets a basic minimum level of energy efficiency for more than 50 types of products in our homes, businesses, and factories. Ranging from common household appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners to commercial and industrial equipment like electric motors and distribution transformers, these products represent:

  • 90% of home energy use;
  • 60% of the electricity used in commercial buildings; and
  • approximately 29% of industrial energy use. 

And making the energy we use work smarter by increasing the efficiency of our appliances and equipment is the cheapest, cleanest, and quickest way to meet our power needs and a critical tool to meeting America’s energy demands now and in the future. In many cases, manufacturers may also go beyond the minimum levels and offer products that produce even more energy savings.

Thanks to existing minimum standards, U.S .electricity use was about 7 percent lower in 2010 than it would have been otherwise, with cumulative energy savings through 2035 projected to be equal to about two years of total U.S. energy use. The dollar savings add up too: total net savings from existing appliance and equipment standards will exceed $1 trillion by 2035, and these savings just keep growing!

A typical household that purchased new basic home appliances in 2010 will save almost $10,000 on utility bills through 2025 compared to a household with the same basic appliances purchased in 1980. The benefits go beyond energy bill savings: standards also help create jobs as the money saved is spent throughout the economy; they reduce peak electricity demand, which helps avoid rolling blackouts; and because less electricity needs to be generated to run our appliances and equipment, they also help avoid the pollution harmful to human health and the environment that is emitted when fossil fuels are used to run power plants.

Appliance Standards 101

As consumers, we can’t tell from just looking at appliances and electronics whether they are needlessly gobbling energy. But the Department of Energy—since the late 1980s—sets technology-neutral, minimum energy-saving levels, leaving manufacturers free to innovate and find new ways to achieve even greater savings. Just a few examples of the program’s success in sparking manufacturing innovation include new clothes washers that use 75% less energy and new dishwashers using half as much as they did in 1987.

And now with the latest upgrade to refrigerators, they use only a quarter of the electricity of their 1970s counterparts while offering 20 percent more storageand costing half as much.

Without DOE’s minimum efficiency standards, which are established in a lengthy and transparent rule-making process that includes important input from manufacturers, energy savings would get left on the table, leading to unnecessarily high utility bills, increased electricity demand, and more harmful pollution. 

Efficiency standards have a long history of bipartisan and broad stakeholder support. President Ronald Reagan in 1987 signed into law establishing the first energy efficiency standards; President George W. Bush signed legislation strengthening the efficiency standards program in 2005 and 2007; and President Barack Obama has made efficiency standards one of the cornerstones of his clean energy strategy. Many state governments, utilities, businesses, manufacturers, consumer groups, and efficiency and environmental groups strongly support energy efficiency standards. In fact, many product efficiency standards have been set at energy savings levels jointly recommended by industry and efficiency advocates in consensus agreements.

What does the future hold?

History has shown that energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit that keeps growing back. For example, the standards for refrigerators have been updated multiple times and each time new cost-effective opportunities have emerged, thanks to technological progress and manufacturing ingenuity. Looking forward, additional energy savings remain on the horizon both as new product categories emerge and the standards for existing product categories are updated to reflect technology advancements.

To date, the Obama administration has set efficiency standards that will save consumers $422 billion over the life of the products. As part of his Climate Action Plan announced last year, President Obama set a goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 3 billion metric tons by 2030 from efficiency standards. The target is substantial, but the administration is well on its way to meeting it with more than 2 billion metric tons accounted for from efficiency standards already finalized. Upcoming standards rulemakings with significant potential for additional savings include commercial and industrial pumps and fans, residential furnaces, commercial air conditioners, and many others.

Tomorrow: 5 Fascinating Things You May Not Know About Standards for Appliances and Equipment