Lawsuit Update: DOE Inaction Costs Consumers Billions

Credit: DOE

NRDC sued the Trump administration back in June for delaying five energy efficiency standards that would save consumers more than $11 billion on their energy bills and reduce carbon pollution by 25 million metric tons. That lawsuit marches forward, and we recently filed briefs that outline just how the administration is violating the law.

First, some good news: the standard for one of the products originally included in our lawsuit, walk-in coolers and freezers, has now been published in the Federal Register, the final step required for it to go into effect. This means we no longer need to include it in our case. Businesses that use this equipment, like restaurants and grocery stores, will save up to $4 billion over 30 years of sales.

NRDC had also separately sued the Department of Energy (DOE) over a delayed effective date for the standard for ceiling fans. While delaying the effective date didn’t change the manufacturers’ compliance date (which is when they can no longer make ceiling fans that do not meet the standard), it left manufacturers in a state of uncertainty and raised concerns that DOE would attempt to weaken the rule. The Trump administration felt the pressure and issued notice in May confirming it intended to let the ceiling fan standard take effect on September 30, with an unchanged January 2020 date for manufacturers’ compliance. We didn’t drop our lawsuit right away—just in case—but we’re happy to report that standard took effect without issue on September 30. Once manufacturers comply with the new standard in 2020, it will save consumers up to $12 billion over the next 30 years. 

But back to the four remaining standards still in limbo: air compressors, uninterruptible power supplies, portable air conditioners, and commercial packaged boilers. Taken together, these standards would reduce carbon pollution by more than 18 million metric tons, and save consumers nearly $8.5 billion. NRDC and our co-plaintiffs Sierra Club, Consumer Federation of America, and Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy are seeking an order compelling the DOE to publish these efficiency rules in the Federal Register, which ensures consumers will attain these substantial savings.


As required by a law signed by President Reagan, the DOE has been creating energy efficiency standards for household appliances and industrial equipment since 1987. Standards have already saved consumers billions of dollars on energy bills and each one is the result of a transparent, years-long process that involves input from manufacturers, utilities, top research scientists, energy efficiency advocates, and the public. The timeline for issuing and updating most efficiency standards is established by law. 


That’s why we sued over the delayed rules. They had already been vetted by industry and efficiency advocates, and were developed via a lengthy, transparent process. The DOE signed off on them in December, launching a 45-day “error correction” period to allow the agency to spot and fix any mistakes in the text of the rules before publishing them. Members of the public requested corrections only for the boiler standard, but even if corrections are necessary, DOE still has a legal duty to publish a corrected standard. According to law, all the standards should have been published in the Federal Register as official rules months ago.


Next up, there will be one more round of legal briefs from defendants DOE and the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (which intervened in the case). We’ll get another chance to reply to those before the hearing on our lawsuit, currently scheduled for mid-January in San Francisco.


Here’s a detailed look at the stalled standards:


Air Compressors

Air compressors are found in commercial and industrial products, like robots used in manufacturing or large paint sprayers—or the machine at the gas station that pumps air into your tires. According to the DOE, the first-ever standard for this equipment will save commercial and industrial consumers $36 million to $45 million on their utility bills each year, or $200 to $400 million over the lifespan of the machines. Customers will see a payback on their investment in a new compressor within the first 2.5 to 5 years--well within its 13-year lifespan. While the standard is less rigorous and more narrow than NRDC advocated for, it is an improvement over no standard. 

Portable Air Conditioners

While NRDC advocated for a more stringent standard for portable air conditioners, it’s still a big deal that they will finally have to meet any efficiency standard. Window air conditioners have been subject to a standard for more than 25 years, and since portable air conditioners have not, their performance has lagged behind drastically. The first standard for portable air conditioners will save consumers an average of $125 over the lifetime of the equipment and cut energy use by more than 20 percent compared to the least-efficient products available today. It will reduce carbon emissions by 25.6 million metric tons, equivalent to the annual emissions from 5.4 million cars. 


Uninterruptible Power Supplies

The agreed-upon standards for uninterruptible power supplies—the battery backup systems that automatically kick in to keep electronics running when the power goes out or falters—will save consumers and businesses up to $3 billion on their electric bills over the next three decades. This represents an energy savings of 15 percent compared to no standards, and will avoid 49 million metric tons climate-warming carbon dioxide pollution. According to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, the standards will save enough electricity to power 7 million U.S. homes for a year and avoid the amount of annual pollution from 10.3 million cars. 


Commercial Packaged Boilers

These boilers heat nearly one-quarter of the nation’s commercial floor space , as well as some multifamily buildings and small industrial facilities. The new standard would save consumers up to about $2 billion on their energy bills and avoid roughly 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 30 years, or the same amount of carbon pollution emitted by more than 3 million cars driven for a year.


These efficiency standards need to go into effect. Not only do standards slash consumer energy bills, they also spur  American innovation and protect U.S.-made products from inferior imports while reducing the need to build additional expensive and polluting power plants.