Holding the Dept. of Energy’s Feet to the Efficient Furnace

Summer is fading into fall and that means heating season is fast approaching, along with daunting energy bills it can bring with it. Fortunately, wasted energy (and money) lost up the chimney could come to an end thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) latest proposed minimum energy efficiency standard for gas furnaces, which heat more than 40 percent of U.S. homes.

It’s been almost 25 years since the last significant update to the efficiency standard for gas furnaces. In fact, the last time the minimum efficiency requirement for our furnaces was revised was in 1992 - a year when George H. W. Bush (that’s the senior Bush) was still president and A Few Good Men was released to rave reviews.  This delay has led to a significant missed opportunity for consumers and the environment.

In fact, NRDC estimates in a new issue brief published today the lost savings between 2011, a year when a 92 AFUE furnace – which DOE is now proposing – would have been both technologically feasible and cost effective because sales of high efficiency furnaces had been on a steady rise for a number of years—and the end of 2021 the earliest potential effective date for a new standard, the United States would have: 

  • Saved enough energy to meet New England’s gas and propane heating needs for nearly two years, and
  • Avoided 22 million tons of harmful carbon pollution, equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 4 million cars.

Trending More Efficient

The latest proposal from DOE for America’s most prevalent heating equipment would establish the national minimum efficiency standard for new furnaces at 92 percent efficiency beginning five years after the rule becomes final—meaning 92 percent of the fuel burned in the furnace is converted into useful heat. While this is a significant step forward, 92 percent efficient falls short of the full economic value, even by DOE’s own analysis. A 95 percent efficient furnace would deliver even greater energy and environmental savings, and that technology is currently available.

Additionally, DOE introduced a standard for small furnaces and proposed leaving the standard unchanged at 80 percent efficient for those products, which reflects the input and recommendations of many stakeholders. Allowing small furnaces to still be 80 percent efficient would deliver significant savings for the majority of homes that require a larger furnace and for which the higher efficiency is more cost-effective.

Quit Stalling

The missed opportunity from delay is significant. Consumers can’t afford to wait any longer. The latest proposal is expected to yield huge benefits, delivering up to $21.7 billion in savings to consumers—or $29 billion with the stronger 95 percent AFUE standard--and avoiding nearly 143 million metric tons of harmful carbon pollution over 30 years of sales, which are equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of over 30 million cars. (Refer to my earlier blog for more details).

These lost savings would have been especially helpful to renters, most of who pay heating bills but are unable to choose their furnaces. An improved standard would have forced landlords to purchase efficient furnaces and saved those renters money. Low-income households, which spend a larger chunk of their budgets on energy, would have especially benefitted.

U.S. consumers should no longer wait to save billions on their winter heating bills. The DOE now has the opportunity to put an end to the history of delays by finalizing the long-overdue standard for new furnaces manufactured as of 2022, slashing consumer utility bills and collective carbon emissions alike.