Getting to Yes on Efficiency: How NRDC Courtroom Victories and Stakeholder Negotiations Led to Consensus on Strong New Energy Efficiency Standards for Air Conditioners and Furnaces

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has just unveiled strong new efficiency standards for central air conditioners and furnaces.  These standards are the culmination of years of hard-fought, shin-kicking lawsuits followed by intense periods of arm-twisting and ultimately productive negotiation sessions between a diverse coalition of stakeholders and several presidential administrations, going back more than a decade.

These strong new energy efficiency standards for air conditioners and furnaces will allow consumers to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter while using much less electricity and natural gas.  My colleague Meg Waltner describes the energy, consumer and environmental savings from these new standards hereThere is the broad support for these new standards, which DOE adopted based on a consensus agreement negotiated and strongly supported by a diverse array of stakeholders, including NRDC, manufacturers, states, consumer groups and efficiency advocates.

In a political era where consensus often seems impossible, how did all these disparate parties and unlikely allies come together to negotiate a complex set of energy efficiency standards for so many products?  As with many NRDC victories, this one started in the court room – and then moved to the negotiation table. 

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.  Each efficiency standard is required by law to “achieve the maximum improvement in energy efficiency” that is “technologically feasible and economically justified.”  Because Congress understood that as technology improves, efficiency will improve, the law also requires that each new standard must be as strong or stronger than the one before, and DOE is prohibited from weakening an efficiency standard once it must be set.  (In 2005, NRDC won a landmark court decision which invoked this provision of law to prevent the Bush administration from rolling back efficiency standards for central air conditioners established by the Clinton administration, which increased air conditioner efficiency by 30%).

DOE Secretary Steven Chu has been a tremendous champion for energy efficiency ever since his appointment in 2008.   But not all of his predecessors at DOE have shared his zeal.   By 2005, DOE had fallen well behind Congress’ schedule for updates – indeed, DOE had missed deadlines for strengthening energy efficiency standards for some 22 product categories, in some cases by more than a decade.  NRDC and its allies, including consumer groups and states led by New York State, sued DOE for missing all these deadlines. That case led to a judicial consent decree that required DOE to issue all the overdue standards under a strict, enforceable schedule.

But when the Bush administration finally issued long-overdue furnace efficiency standards in November 2007, it punted.  The Bush DOE standards were so weak that most furnaces on the market already complied, producing virtually no real energy or consumer savings.  Again, NRDC – ably represented by my colleagues Anjali Jaiswal and Tim Ballo at Earthjustice and joined once again by consumer and state allies -- challenged this weak standard in court.  After President Obama took office in 2008, DOE settled this challenge by agreeing to redo the rule.

At that point, the action moved to the negotiation table.  After so much litigation, both manufacturers and efficiency advocates were ready to roll up their sleeves and hammer out an agreement on efficiency standards that would work for everyone and would not be challenged in court.  We agreed to put aside past differences and to think outside the box for new strategies that would promote strong energy efficiency levels but also be responsive to the needs of our industry partners.  The result is the historic agreement that DOE has adopted today.

And this is not an isolated instance.  NRDC, efficiency allies and manufacturers of “white goods” – refrigerators, washers and dryers and the like – also negotiated a similar consensus agreement.  

DOE has adopted part of this agreement, but is lagging on the portion that deals with refrigerators.  So there’s much more work to be done.

Finally, Congress can and should also take action to adopt these and other consensus standards through legislation.  Senators Shaheen and Portman have introduced a bipartisan energy efficiency bill which includes all these negotiated efficiency standards (S. 1000), as have Senators Bingaman and Murkowski (S. 398).  If manufacturers, states, consumer groups and environmental groups can agree on these standards, surely Congress can get these bills passed despite partisan rancor on the Hill.

And whether it’s in the courtroom, at the negotiation table, or in the halls of Congress, NRDC will continue to champion the cause of energy efficiency – always the cleanest, fastest, cheapest solution to American’s energy challenges.

Supporters of the new standards include: consumer groups such as Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumer Law Center;  AHRI, the national trade association for heating and cooling equipment manufacturers; more than a dozen individual furnace and air conditioner manufacturers; state agencies such as the California Energy Commission (CEC); gas and electric utilities such as National Grid, Avista Corporation and the Edison Electric Institute (which is the electric utility trade group); and, of course, NRDC and efficiency advocacy allies such as the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the Alliance to Save Energy.  We salute all these parties for their important joint efforts and diligent work to promote energy efficiency – and for getting to yes on the important new standards that DOE has just issued.