Strong Start on Energy Efficiency for Biden Administration
Update 2/22/21: DOE has notified the White House that it is reviewing 13 regulations pursuant to the Executive Order.
Update 1/28/21: A larger list of Trump DOE regulations to be reviewed now includes the light bulb rollback, clothes washer and clothes dryers, dishwashers, interim test procedure waivers, and small electric motors.
President Biden is off to a strong start when it comes to energy efficiency. The president’s Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis directs agencies to review a number of harmful actions taken during the Trump administration, including several involving efficiency—led by changing the process the Department of Energy uses to set national energy-saving standards.
The president has made it clear that he considers energy efficiency to be a significant weapon in the fight against the worsening climate crisis, a marked improvement from the Trump administration’s continual assault on efficiency standards. This change will be good for consumers and good for the environment, protecting a program that saves the average U.S. household $500 annually on their energy bills and avoids millions of tons of carbon pollution. The president has also nominated former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to lead his DOE and she is expected to address the need to focus on efficiency and other clean energy options at her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.
In the meantime, the president has asked DOE to review these Trump efforts to undermine efficiency:
Changing the Efficiency Standards Process: Ignoring more than 47,000 public comments submitted in opposition to weakening standards, the DOE finalized harmful changes to its standard-setting process in January 2020 that make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to update and establish new efficiency standards. NRDC and others sued over this “Process Rule” based on several new elements, including setting an arbitrary baseline for “significant savings” to establish a new standard. About 40 percent of the standards already on the books today could not meet it, which means consumers and businesses would have paid several billion dollars more on their utility bills and there would have been more power plant pollution associated with running less efficient appliances and equipment.
Requiring New Economic Justification: In a second rulemaking as part of the Process Rule revisions, the Trump DOE changed the parameters for determining whether a new energy efficiency standard is “economically justified”—meaning that its benefits, such as consumer savings from lower utility bills, exceed its costs. By law, DOE must first identify the maximum improvement in energy efficiency that is technologically feasible. If a standard at that level would not be economically justified, DOE must set it at the next highest level that is both technologically feasible and economically justified. DOE in August 2020 changed that approach to make it easier to reject standards. That’s why we filed suit this past October.
Section 2 of Biden’s executive order also directs agencies to “immediately review all existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies, and other similar agency actions” issued during the Trump administration. Some of the other harmful actions that we expect the Biden administration will be eager to address include:
Blocking Energy-Savings Standards for Light Bulbs: In December 2019, DOE announced that it would block efficiency standards scheduled to go into effect January 1, 2020, for the hundreds of millions of everyday light bulbs annually sold in the United States. The action defied a bipartisan 2007 law passed by Congress – and also increased consumer utility bills and worsened the carbon pollution driving climate change. NRDC and others sued over DOE’s “final determination” not to go forward with improved efficiency standards for the bulbs filling roughly 6 billion U.S. sockets. The groups in November 2019 also sued over DOE’s illegal reversal of a rule expanding the types of bulbs required to become more efficient. Despite American’s rapid acceptance of energy-saving LED light bulbs, many sockets in the United States still contain some type of incandescent bulb. The cases have been combined and are still pending.
Exempting Quick-Cycle Residential Washers and Dryers from Standards: The Trump DOE in December undercut the energy-saving requirements for new clothes washers and dryers by carving out a “short-cycle” class and exempting them from current standards. Under the new policy, there are no limits on energy or water use for new household washers and dryers with short cycle times as their “normal” or "default" setting. What is especially perplexing is that most of today’s new washers and dryers—all of which comply with DOE energy and water efficiency standards for normal cycles—already offer a short cycle option for times when a consumer may be in a hurry.
Exempting Quick-Cycle Dishwashers from Standards: The Trump DOE also needlessly created a class of dishwashers with a default wash and dry cycle of less than 60 minutes that would be exempt from any water- or energy-saving requirements. NRDC and others filed suit in December 2020 over this circumvention of longtime energy and water efficiency standards for dishwashers. More than 8 million dishwashers are purchased in the United States every year so the number of models lacking any standards could be substantial. Even manufacturers opposed it, saying it would lead to “additional costs for manufacturers and, ultimately, consumers.” Meanwhile, according to a product survey, almost 87 percent of dishwasher models already include an optional cycle that can wash and dry a load of dishes in just over an hour.
Manufacturers Designing Their Own Tests: DOE in December finalized a “midnight” rule that gives residential and commercial appliance and equipment manufacturers an opportunity to write their own tests for measuring how much energy their products consume—and to do so with little government oversight. The rule creates a huge potential loophole, whereby an industry request to use an alternative test procedure would be automatically granted after 45 business days.
Standards for Small Electric Motors: In the closing days of the administration, the Trump administration also announced that it had determined that it would not be cost-effective to update the standard for small electric motors, which are typically used to run pumps, fans and blowers, farm machinery, and major residential and commercial equipment. We disagree with this decision, as substantial cost effective energy savings were available had DOE simply updated the scope of its regulations to cover groups of motors that are currently not subject to standards. The standard for small electric motors was also among the 25 overdue standards that DOE failed to review and update as required by law. NRDC and others sued the Trump DOE over the delays, noting the standards would save households and businesses at least $22 billion annually on their utility bills.
In addition, an interpretive rule issued January 14th regarding gas furnaces and commercial water heaters must be reversed in order to avoid needlessly protecting less efficient products. DOE must also address a nonsensical rule removing the water-use limits on showerheads, which was developed in response to a series of baseless claims by former President Trump.
We hope the Biden administration’s DOE can move quickly on the energy efficiency standards front, an area that President Obama recently said was an important unheralded accomplishment of the administration he led with now-President Biden. It’s encouraging to once again have a president who takes efficiency seriously and realizes it's an important part of the climate solution.