A Positive House Hearing on Grid-Enabled Water Heaters

I had the pleasure of testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce - Subcommittee on Energy and Power last week. The topic was proposed legislation to grant "grid-enabled water heaters" a carefully designed exemption from the strong and important federal energy efficiency standards for water heaters that take effect next month. Grid-enabled water heaters are large electric resistance water heaters with communication and control capability that allow them to be used in an electricity system's energy storage or demand response program.

NRDC is a longstanding and strong supporter of federal energy efficiency standards, and we continue to support the latest energy efficiency standards for water heaters, which will save energy and lower consumers' bills. We have only rarely supported exemptions from standards. But here we explored the opportunities that grid-enable water heaters may offer for environmental and consumer benefit, found the case persuasive, and worked intensively with manufacturers, utilities, and other efficiency and environmental organizations to develop legislation that would deliver on the opportunity while not undermining the benefits of strong efficiency standards.

These smart water heaters present a promising opportunity for a more efficient, more economic, and ultimately lower-emissions electricity system, even though they are less efficient individually. The key to the environmental and consumer benefit is using water heaters as low cost thermal batteries, allowing much more flexible operation of the electricity grid. A more flexible grid will allow faster, cheaper uptake of renewable energy generation. There's much more to be learned about the possible role of smart water heaters and the trade-offs between system and component efficiency, and this legislation would foster much better understanding. Importantly, the legislation is carefully designed to make sure that these water heaters are actually used in a demand response or energy storage program, and not a loophole to avoid the efficiency standards.

The hearing was a real pleasure. There was support from both sides of the aisle for the legislation and for our work, and a focus not on politics, but rather on policy that's good for consumers and the environment. Statements of the subcommittees members are available here (for the majority) and here (for the minority).

There's more detail on the opportunities and challenges of grid-enabled water heaters in my testimony, as well as in a letter that we wrote jointly with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy last year in support of one manufacturer's request to DOE for an exception from the efficiency standard.

Looking ahead, we have a couple of exciting water heater efforts under way with great outcomes for the environment and consumers, and I hope to report on those here in the next few months.