From Hawaii to Vermont, States Tackle Efficiency Standards

With the Trump administration slowing progress on energy-saving efficiency standards for appliances, equipment, and electronics that save Americans billions of dollars, states are stepping in to try to fill the gap. So far this year, five states have introduced efficiency standards bills and one—Vermont—passed the bill into law. Vermont joins California as a leadership state with a comprehensive suite of state-level energy efficiency standards.

Now that legislative sessions have concluded for the year in many states, here’s a look at what happened and where we could be headed in 2019.

Why state standards?

The federal appliance standards program sets the minimum energy consumption levels for most of the appliances, equipment, and electronics we use every day. But the federal government isn’t the only player in this space – some states have been setting their own standards since the 1970s for products sold in their states and continue to do so today.

Over the past decade or so the federal government has done most of the heavy lifting on efficiency standards, which both we and equipment manufacturers prefer. Advocates like a national standard because it guarantees savings in every state in the country, and it’s easier for manufacturers to comply with one nationwide standard than a patchwork of state standards. The Trump administration has signaled a very different view of standards. While we’re going to keep fighting to protect and preserve national standards and the trillions of dollars in savings for consumers, states can help lead the way by pushing forward standards for additional products.

Under federal law, states are generally “preempted,” or prohibited, from establishing state energy-efficiency standards for products already covered by federal standards. And if the federal government establishes an efficiency standard for a product the states already are regulating, the state standard no longer applies. There are exceptions to this rule, but most states instead establish energy efficiency for products that are not covered by the federal appliance standards program. States including Texas, Oregon, Arizona, and New Hampshire already have state standards on the books for a select number of products.

Significant products not covered by federal standards include computers and monitors, water-using products, and air purifiers. In some cases it is difficult to set a federal standard for these products. For example, computer and monitor technology changes very frequently, so states are better equipped to set a nimble standard that can be updated more quickly than a federal standard.

Products not covered by federal standards have the potential to save Americans a substantial amount of energy. Water-saving products represent some of the biggest savings: if all states adopted standards for faucets, showerheads, lawn spray sprinklers, and toilets, consumers would save more than $10 billion annually on their utility bills by 2035. Saving water saves energy, too: by using less water, energy savings are achieved by not having to pump and treat the water—or heat as much hot water. 

NRDC’s staff has worked with the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP) to develop a model energy efficiency standards bill for adoption by interested states. According to an analysis by ASAP, adoption of state standards for the 21 products listed in the table would save consumers nearly $16 billion annually by 2035. (These numbers are based on the normal replacement cycle for installed products.)

Appliance Standards Awareness Project

Here’s a look at what the states have been doing this year.

Vermont

Let’s start with success in the Green Mountain state. Vermont was already a leader in state standards, enacting legislation in May 2017 that adopts current federal energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment, “so that the same standards will be in place in Vermont should the federal standards be repealed or voided.” This is an important precedent that other states should follow. Vermont continued the momentum in 2018 by passing H. 410, which will require efficiency standards for more than a dozen products.

Vermont is the only state to pass a standards bill this year, but others made significant progress that will set them up for success in 2019.

Washington

Washington introduced House Bill 2327 in January, which would require standards for more than 20 new products, including faucets, showerheads, and computers. While the bill passed the House, it didn’t make it out of committee in the Senate – but we’re not discouraged. Such a positive reception gives us high hopes for the 2019 legislative session.

This isn’t the first time Washington has tackled efficiency standards—the state already has them for products including pool pumps and water dispensers, which are already saving money and energy. Efficiency standards bills have been introduced in recent legislative sessions, but none was as wide-reaching as the most recent bill.

If it becomes law in the future, residents will save big—more than $200 million on their utility bills by 2025. The savings grow to $365 million in 2035, while reducing carbon pollution by 400,000 metric tons annually, equivalent to eliminating the emissions from 85,000 cars. To be clear: those are the benefits Washington households and businesses will receive each year thanks to the proposed state standards—real savings that can be spent and invested in other parts of their economy.

Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership

Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii

The neighboring New England states both had hearings on appliance standards bills (H 4737 in Massachusetts and S 2362 in Rhode Island) and passed them out of committee—and Massachusetts’ bill even passed the House. Five thousand miles west, Hawaii held a hearing for a state standards bill, but it didn’t pass the committee. This is not unusual in state legislatures, though. It often takes a cycle or two for lawmakers to get comfortable with a concept and get it done. We’re thrilled that no matter which coast you’re on (or in the middle of the Pacific, in Hawaii’s case), appliance standards have gained steam.

New York

New York adopted state appliance standards in the 1980s, but the majority have since been preempted by federal action. Given the lack of current federal leadership, New York is getting back into the appliance standards game in a big way. Governor Andrew Cuomo touted state appliance standards in his recent State of the State address, highlighting them as a proven way to achieve significant energy savings.

We expect legislation for a number of products offering significant savings for New Yorkers, as well as focus on appliance standards by the U.S. Climate Alliance to advance standards across the Alliance and around the country.

While states can take limited action on standards because of preemption, this year’s level of state interest is encouraging. States know that standards are good for their residents, businesses, and manufacturers—and for cutting power plant emissions. If the Department of Energy won’t act, states can—and should.

About the Authors

Lauren Urbanek

Senior Energy Policy Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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