Shedding Efficient Light on DOE Appliance Standards Program

Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

Whether in a home, business, or factory, energy that is burned without benefit is a waste. Efficiency standards, such as those set for appliances and equipment by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), prevent the U.S. economy from wasting energy by setting a basic minimum level of energy efficiency that all Americans can depend on.

In fact, for almost four decades, national energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment have proven to be one of the most successful policy tools to reduce U.S. energy demand, lower emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and save consumers billions of dollars every year, without sacrificing comfort or performance of these products.



Under a federal statute originally signed into law by President Reagan in 1987, DOE is required to issue and then strengthen energy efficiency standards for dozens of residential and commercial products by specific deadlines. Amended a number of times since, the law has been strengthened by establishing new standards and amending existing ones. Notably the Energy Policy Act of 2005 set new standards for 16 products and directed DOE to set standards via rulemaking for another five. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 enacted new or updated standards for 13 products as well as a requirement that DOE maintain a schedule to regularly review and update all standards and test procedures.

So how does the standards process work?

Generally speaking, federal law requires DOE to review existing standards for covered products at least once every six years and to set standards for new products as opportunities for energy savings emerge. The standards are developed or revised via rulemaking and are done so through multiple phases, each allowing for public review and comment. Also during this process, DOE conducts extensive research and analysis, solicits public comment, and interviews manufacturers, all which help DOE refine the analysis that leads to the final determination of a minimum energy standard. The standard then takes effect three to five years from the date of publication of the final rule in the Federal Register.

These standards represent levels that achieve the maximum improvement in energy efficiency that is “technically feasible and economically justified.” To determine whether a standard meets these criteria, DOE analyzes an appliance market to determine consumer energy savings, impact on manufacturers, and economy-wide benefits. Transparency and public participation are key components of this process. DOE relies on input from interested parties like manufactures and consumer advocates to develop an effective and enforceable standard that balances maximum energy savings with consumer and manufacturer impacts.

While most standards go through the formal rulemaking process, there are other pathways that are sometimes used to set efficiency standards. For instance, standards can result from negotiations between industry and advocates which can then be brought to DOE or Congress to enact. For example, NRDC and other energy efficiency advocates worked with the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers in 2010 on an agreement to establish new energy and water efficiency standards for several common household appliances, which DOE later adopted.

The Department of Energy can also host a negotiated rulemaking which allows them to play an active role in the negotiation process. This provides a means to engage the public, gather data and information, and attempt to reach consensus beyond the formal rulemaking process, in order to advance the rulemaking process more quickly than they might have otherwise. DOE has hosted several negotiated rulemakings recently on issues ranging from enforcement of regional standards for air conditioners to the first ever standards for commercial and industrial pumps. Negotiated rulemakings for new product categories or issue areas can be useful when new data is being gathered or complex and difficult issues are being considered.   

The road hasn’t always been smooth.

Despite broad support for standards, there have still been a few bumps along the way. In 2005, NRDC won a landmark court decision which invoked a provision of law that prevented the Bush administration from rolling back efficiency standards for central air conditioners established by the Clinton administration, which increased air conditioner efficiency by 30 percent. Despite this victory, DOE continued to fall increasing the behind in issuing required efficiency standards and had missed deadlines for 22 different product categories, some by as much as two decades.  NRDC again led a coalition to sue DOE over these missed deadlines, which resulted in a strict, enforceable consent decree requiring DOE to issue all the overdue standards by specific dates. Clearing the roadblocks for those long-overdue efficiency standards helps the environment, the economy and our wallets.

Standards matter

National appliance standards have cost effectively saved our nation a considerable amount of energy, lowered emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and saved consumers billions of dollars every year while improving the environment, and will continue to do so into the future. As appliances evolve, new opportunities to improve standards will continue to emerge. NRDC is glad to see a commitment by the Obama administration to leverage this historically effective program to achieve the important clean energy goals Americans believe are important for our future. 


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