Energy Efficiency Standards Achieve Olympic-Sized Savings

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The opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics had much of the usual pomp and pageantry we’ve come to expect and love. But what made it stand out for me even more than the fireworks and costumes was the moving message about the world’s changing climate and the impact humans have on our environment. If we gave out awards for the most carbon emissions, the United States would get the silver medal (second only to China). That’s one contest we don’t want anyone to win.

Much of NRDC’s work focuses on mitigating the global threats of climate change, which will require many tools and policy changes to win. The appliance and equipment efficiency standards program is one such initiative that has quietly had a major impact on U.S. energy use and carbon pollution.

I’ve written recently about how energy efficiency standards help curb climate change because they reduce the need to generate energy from fossil fuels, how standards benefit all consumers regardless of income level, and the huge amounts of energy saved in the United States thanks to standards put in place during the Obama administration. 

In fact, standards for our appliances and equipment that were adopted between between1987 and this year are producing $2 trillion in cumulative utility bill savings. That’s enough to fund 160 more Olympic Games at the scale of the Rio Games. And, according to a new study released last week by our friends at the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP) and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), there’s plenty more savings to be achieved.

Energy efficiency is a big winner

Meanwhile, Olympians aren’t the only ones with big wins this week. A ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Seventh Circuit issued just yesterday adds further support for the role of the standards program in the fight against climate change. The three-judge rejected a challenge brought by manufacturers to a DOE energy efficiency standard for commercial refrigeration equipment, finding that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is entitled to include environmental benefits in its economic analysis for efficiency rules, including the social cost of carbon (SCC).

The SCC, a monetary estimate of the harm associated with carbon pollution emissions, has been particularly controversial among manufacturers and others, who argued that DOE was inflating the benefits from the standards program by including this analysis. Manufacturers also argued that the standards program should consider only the national energy and water conservation benefits, not the global benefits. But the judges (all of whom, interestingly, were appointed by Republican presidents) agreed with DOE that, “National energy conservation has global effects, and therefore, those global effects are an appropriate consideration when looking at a national policy.” We couldn’t have said it any better, and now we know that the courts agree.   

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What’s ahead

As we look to the close of the Obama administration, we’re left with the question: is there room to make the appliance and efficiency standards program even stronger and better than it already is, to achieve even more energy and carbon pollution savings? As it turns out, the answer to that question is a resounding yes! The ASAP-ACEEE study says future updates to existing appliance, equipment, and lighting efficiency standards would cut climate emissions by the annual equivalent of 60 coal-fired power plants and lower consumer utility bills by $65 billion a year by 2050

While the standards program has been in place since the bipartisan enactment of the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act of 1987, the Obama administration has been particularly active. Since President Obama took office in 2009, the administration has finalized 45 appliance, equipment, and lighting efficiency standards. That’s more than all of the other administrations combined since the statute was enacted—truly a record-breaking performance. Together, they will save 44 quads of energy and $540 billion on residential and business utility bills through 2030.

But this great progress isn’t done yet. The Department of Energy expects to finalize another dozen or so standards before the next president takes office, and can now do so with the confidence that their environmental analysis is justified and legally sound, thanks to this week’s court ruling.

Where we can find even more savings

Standards mean big environmental and financial benefits for consumers, so it’s great news that there is huge potential for even more savings. The ASAP/ACEEE report found that just 10 products account for more than 70 percent of cumulative energy and utility bill savings potential over the next eight years: water heaters, central air conditioners/heat pumps, showerheads, clothes dryers, fans, electric motors, refrigerators/freezers, faucets, distribution transformers, and compressors—appliances and equipment that are prevalent in both homes and businesses.

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Many of these products are already covered by standards, but some of them (particularly showerheads and faucets) have standards that are woefully out of date. In the case of those two products, there’s big potential for both water and energy savings, but standards haven’t been updated since 1992 (the same year that the Dream Team led by Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan dominated the summer Olympics in Barcelona).

There’s opportunity for greatness in the policies that support the standards program, too. Higher savings can be achieved by:

  • Investing in improved test procedures,
  • Strategically expanding the scope of national standards to products like plug loads or other types of pumps and motors,
  • Improving DOE’s analysis techniques and data sources,
  • Considering how standards contribute to systems-level savings (for example, reflecting the energy use it takes to dry clothes in the washer’s efficiency ratings, to encourage better spin cycles), and
  • Accounting for the savings from advances in connected equipment, which may be able to be controlled remotely or have other functions that don’t currently exist.

Proven, effective policies like appliance and equipment standards are crucial to protect not only the future of our country, but also the health of the world we all share. Watching the athletes from so many parts of it come together to compete at the Olympics is just another reminder of that. As countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe become more urbanized and emit more of the harmful carbon pollution fueling climate change, energy-efficiency standards can help reduce those emissions, making us all winners.

About the Authors

Lauren Urbanek

Senior Energy Policy Advocate, Energy & Transportation program

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