Despite Chaos, Department of Energy Moves Forward with Energy Efficiency

Today the Department of Energy (DOE) took an important step forward by issuing a proposed rule on energy efficiency standards for furnace fans.  If made final after public comment, this initiative will save American consumers at least hundreds of millions of dollars in lower energy bills over a thirty year period and several billion more in avoided air pollution costs.  (Despite the chaos caused by the federal shutdown,the department was open today, apparently operating on funds remaining from the prior fiscal year.)

DOE’s action is important for three reasons.

First, while few of us ever think about or even know about furnace fans, they are among the largest users of electricity in a typical household.  In cold weather, after a furnace creates hot air by burning fuel,  furnace fans help to circulate the heat throughout our homes.  For homes with central air conditioning systems, furnace fans also help to circulate cold air in the summer.  As Joanna Mauer at the Appliance Standards Awareness Project writes, a typical furnace fan uses about 800 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, which is more than the annual energy use of a new refrigerator and new dishwasher combined.  Today’s proposed rule would reduce furnace fan energy use by about 40%, saving the average American household about $400 over the life of the furnace fan.

Second, today’s action shows that Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and all the staff at DOE are serious about meeting the ambitious but attainable goals in President Obama’s Climate Plan.  The president has committed the administration to redoubling its efforts on energy efficiency in order to achieve three billion tons of carbon reduction through energy efficiency and federal building energy standards issued during his first and second term.  As the president said in unrolling the plan, efficiency standards are “not all that sexy” but they produce huge energy bill savings for American consumers and significant carbon reductions. 

Third, in the past, the office in the executive branch  that reviews  agency rules – called OIRA – has delayed some important energy efficiency standards.   But with four proposed efficiency standards and one final standard out the door in just the past few months, it looks like Secretary Moniz and Howard Shelanski, the head of OIRA, have hit their stride on energy efficiency and are leaning in to make sure that the President’s Climate Plan succeeds.

There’s one important catch.   While DOE hustled to get today’s proposal out, it may not be published in the Federal Register until after the shutdown ends.   (The Federal Register’s shutdown plan only allows for the publication of health and safety rules). That means that public comment is on hold and the final rule could still be delayed beyond the December 2013 deadline set by Congress, despite DOE’s best efforts.  As NRDC Legislative Director Scott Slesinger writes, thanks to the House of Representative’s reckless actions in shutting down the government, “Reason has taken a holiday.”