Defending Efficiency Standards: 2017 In Review

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2017 Energy & Climate Developments

America’s energy efficiency standards program has quietly been saving U.S. consumers trillions of dollars off their utility bills over the last 30 years, and there are plenty more savings to still to be achieved. While 2016 ended on a high note with the Obama administration developing and finalizing 11 energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment, things were not so rosy in 2017. There have been a barrage of attempts by the Trump administration to roll back standards and make it a lot harder to improve them in the future. Just last week, the administration indefinitely deferred action on 20 appliance and equipment standards for products like clothes washers, refrigerators, and pool heaters that are due -- or overdue -- to be updated.

But we and others are determined to continue to play defense. The delays announced last week are the latest in what’s become a trend by the Trump administration of illegally failing to act on the standards program, and the nation’s consumers are the ones who suffer as a result.

Efficiency standards ensure that the appliances and equipment in your home or business are not energy hogs. Consumers can’t tell the energy use from looking at the outside of an appliance, so standards set a minimum level of efficiency. Manufacturers innovate to make their products more efficient, which often leads to technology advancements while saving us all money. Refrigerators are a great example of the success of the standards program: a new fridge today uses about a quarter of the energy of its 1973 counterpart, while offering 20 percent more storage – and yet can cost about half as much to purchase. This type of innovation would not have happened without the impetus of the federal efficiency standards program.

Standards completed through 2016 already save the average household about $500 in energy costs each year. By 2035, the updates required by law to existing standards could save consumers an additional $43 billion annually. These savings simply won’t happen if the Trump administration fails to update existing standards, to the detriment of all Americans.

Here’s an update of what happened related to energy efficiency standards this year.

Little Victories That Add Up

Let’s start on a positive note: seven of the 11 efficiency standards completed but not fully finalized during the Obama administration took effect. These were rules for miscellaneous refrigeration (like wine coolers), central air conditioners and heat pumps, pool pumps, walk-in coolers and freezers that are found at restaurants and your local grocery, ceiling fans, the battery chargers in your laptop or cell phone, and dehumidifiers. It took real effort to get a number of these over the finish line, including the threat of litigation over the ceiling fans and walk-in coolers and freezers standards. But the end result was worth it – taken together, these seven completed standards will save consumers more than $66 billion in the form of lower energy bills over 30 years of shipments. These were savings at real risk of not happening.



There are still four standards completed during the Obama administration that have not yet been published in the Federal Register to make them final: standards for uninterruptible power supplies (used to make sure important equipment stays during a power failure), portable air conditioners, air compressors (which you’ve used if you’ve ever put more air in your car tires), and commercial packaged boilers (which heat nearly a quarter of the floor space in the U.S.). NRDC sued the Trump administration for illegally delaying these standards, as detailed in this blog post. We’ll be in court in mid-January to present our arguments in front of a judge. Stay tuned. We want to protect the more than $8 billion in savings that these standards will generate.

Regulatory “Reform”

The Trump administration wasted no time imposing its anti-regulatory agenda, issuing an executive order (EO) just a week after taking office that decreed that for every new regulation put in place, two had to be repealed. The administration followed that up with another order that purports to promote energy independence and growth, but in fact does the opposite by stifling the cleanest and least expensive way to meet our energy needs:  energy efficiency. As a result of these orders, the Department of Energy (DOE) has begun outlining how it might monkey around with the efficiency standards program, with a cherry-picked report on regulations that promotes pollution over genuine program improvements and formal requests for information that not-so-subtly hint at changes that could do more harm than good.

And most recently, changes to the Regulatory Agenda (which sets timetables for when agencies will act to develop regulations) indefinitely delayed development of 20 energy efficiency standards*. The delayed standards include products with huge potential for additional utility bill savings through 2050, including water heaters ($233 billion), refrigerators and freezers ($59 billion), distribution transformers ($40 billion) and compressors ($36 billion). Furthermore, nearly all of the affected regulations are required by statute to be updated, and the Trump DOE doesn’t get to pick and choose when to follow the law. The DOE has turned the Regulatory Agenda into a roadmap for how it plans to break the law over the next few years, preventing the progress that should happen to promote American innovation and greater energy savings.


The voluntary ENERGY STAR® labeling program, which makes it easy for consumers to choose the most energy-saving models because of the familiar blue and white label, is also at risk. President Trump’s budget proposed eliminating the program altogether, and recent draft legislative language discussed in the House Energy and Commerce Committee could mean big changes to this highly successful program. ENERGY STAR is one of the most successful public-private partnerships ever, with more than 18,000 partners including manufacturers, utilities, and retailers. And it really works! ENERGY STAR turns a $50 million annual investment into $30+ billion worth of annual customer utility bill savings, and has resulted in sales of more than 5 billion ENERGY STAR labeled products since its inception. 


If you’re concerned about the higher utility bills, increased carbon pollution from generating electricity that eventually ends up being wasted, and lower level of oversight that will come from failure to update appliance and equipment standards – join the club! We’re working every day to keep the Trump administration accountable on this and a variety of other environmental issues. Make your voice heard. Contact your elected officials and let them know that you support these commonsense regulations that benefit everyone, regardless of income or geography. And while you’re at it, you can remind your senators and members of Congress that the standards program has long enjoyed bipartisan support from both Congress and past presidents. We’re going to keep the fight for better standards going into 2018 and beyond.

*The 20 standards on which DOE has indefinitely delayed action are the following (products where DOE has already missed deadlines are in bold): distribution transformers, small electric motors, walk-in coolers and freezers, refrigerators and freezers, commercial refrigeration equipment, external power supplies, metal halide light fixtures, commercial unfired hot water storage tanks, water heaters, clothes washers, microwave ovens, automatic commercial ice makers, pool heaters, circulator pumps, commercial and industrial air compressors, commercial packaged boilers, portable air conditioners, furnaces, commercial water heaters, and uninterruptible power supplies.

About the Authors

Lauren Urbanek

Deputy Director, Clean Buildings, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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