The Big Kahuna: DOE Proposes Rule for Commercial Air Conditioners that Offers Biggest Potential Savings Yet

The White House announced a number of commitments to energy efficiency this morning, not the least of which is a proposed energy efficiency standard for rooftop air conditioners that could produce the largest electricity savings under any U.S. appliance efficiency standard to date.

Known as commercial unitary air conditioners, these units are found on over half of commercial buildings, typically on roofs of anything from schools and big box stores to warehouses and manufacturing plants. According to the White House, increasing their energy efficiency could save 11.7 quads of energy over the life of the units shipped in the next 30 years – equal to more than half of all the residential energy used in one year!

For comparison, many DOE appliance standards result in savings of one quad or less. And while these smaller savings are also significant and add up to big national energy savings when taken together—almost 12 quads is really the big kahuna!

NRDC strongly applauds today’s White House’s efficiency and clean energy announcements which come the same week that a new energy-savings standard became effective for refrigerators and freezers, with the majority of models cutting their energy use by 20 to 25 percent, thanks to a 2010 consensus recommendation to the Department of Energy (DOE) from refrigerator manufacturers, efficiency advocates, consumer groups and states.

According to the White House, the rooftop air conditioner proposed standard announced would help cut carbon pollution by more than 60 million metric tons, and could save consumers nearly $10 billion on their energy bills through 2030. The White House also noted that thus far this year, DOE has issued seven final energy efficiency standards, and when combined with the final rules already issued under this Administration, they will get us more than two-thirds of the way to achieving President Obama’s goal of reducing carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030.

The announcement follows significant groundwork by DOE in this product category, including DOE’s High Performance Rooftop Unit Challenge, a competition among manufacturers to produce efficient cooling units that cut their energy use almost in half and are still affordable in the commercial and industrial real estate space. DOE worked with members of its Commercial Building Energy Alliances (CBEA), which includes many large commercial building owners, to create a challenge specification that rooftop air conditioning manufacturers could meet. As part of the challenge, CBEA members, including Target, Walmart, Macy's and McDonald's, expressed strong interest in potentially purchasing high-efficiency roof-top units, helping to drive buyer support for the challenge levels. Manufacturers Daikin McQuay and Carrier succeeded in producing rooftop ACs that met the challenge specifications and resulted in substantial energy reductions.

Also included in today’s announcement are further savings from building energy codes. DOE will issue its final determination that the latest commercial building energy code – ASHRAE 90.1-2013 – saves energy compared to the previous version. Once DOE issues a positive determination that the new code saves energy compared to the previous code, individual states will consider the code for adoption leading to energy savings in new buildings and major retrofits in those states. DOE will also issue its preliminary determination on the latest residential energy-saving building code – the IECC 2015. DOE estimates that the updated commercial building standards will reduces energy bills for states and the federal government, while cutting emissions by 230 million metric tons of carbon dioxide through 2030.

It’s great to see DOE taking several great steps forward on energy efficiency this week. These codes and standards will not only reduce America’s energy bills, but will also cut emissions of the harmful pollution that’s detrimental to human health.