Tackling Climate Change, One Efficiency Standard at a Time

Addressing climate change recently took center stage both as a moral obligation, highlighted by the pope, and also as a global obligation, as demonstrated by the U.S.-China climate commitments. As part of these commitments, President Obama reaffirmed his pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 3 billion tons cumulatively by 2030 through energy efficiency standards finalized during his administration for appliances and federal buildings.

These standards provide benefits directly to businesses and consumers through energy bill savings, and lessen the risk of global climate change by reducing emissions.

What does it look like to reduce emissions by 3 billion metric tons?

It's equivalent to shutting down all of the power plants in the country for a year and a half, or cutting the same amount of pollution as all of the vehicles on America's roads would emit for more than two years. That's a meaningful and significant contribution toward the progress we must make to overcome the challenges posed by climate change.

The Obama administration is well on its way to meeting this goal, with more than 2 billion metric tons of projected emissions savings on the books through energy efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings. The additional billion metric tons is an ambitious yet achievable target. There are many important energy efficiency standards forthcoming, including energy-saving requirements for residential gas furnaces, roof top air-conditioners, and manufactured homes. The White House, in its commitment, said it would finalize 20 efficiency standards before the end of 2016.

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An example of the energy efficiency standards in the pipeline: Earlier this summer, industry and energy efficiency advocates jointly agreed on updated efficiency standards for commercial rooftop air conditioners and furnaces. The US Department of Energy (DOE) is working to finalize these consensus standards by the end of 2016. Once adopted, this improvement alone will achieve 71 million metric tons of carbon reductions by 2030. And the savings don't stop in 2030! Efficient commercial heating and cooling equipment shipped over the next 30 years will lead to energy savings of almost 15 quads (almost as much energy as is in all the coal burned annually in the United States to generate electricity) and will avoid 815 million metric tons of carbon emissions. That will be the largest amount of savings from a single energy efficiency standard issued by DOE to date.

Some history

These standards cover products that include everything from common household appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners to commercial and industrial equipment like electric motors and distribution transformers. Efficiency standards have long had bipartisan support: in 1987 President Ronald Reagan signed the first federal law establishing energy efficiency standards; President George W. Bush signed legislation strengthening the program in 2005 and 2007; and President Obama has made efficiency standards one of the cornerstones of his energy strategy.

Without DOE's minimum efficiency standards--which are established in a lengthy and transparent rule-making process that includes important input from manufacturers--energy savings would be left on the table, leading to unnecessarily high utility bills, increased electricity demand, and more harmful pollution as a result of using fossil fuels to generate the extra electricity. Federal efficiency standards also provide national uniformity for manufacturers as they design their products.

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Putting it in perspective

At the start of the Obama administration, many energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment had not been updated in years (or in some cases, decades!) falling far behind the schedule required by law. These delays were unnecessarily wasting energy and costing consumers billions on their energy bills.

Recently, the DOE has gotten back on track in a big way, updating standards for more than 40 products since 2009. These will lead to a reduction of more than 2.1 billion metric tons of carbon pollution by 2030.

And thanks to existing minimum standards, U.S .electricity use was about 7 percent lower in 2010 than it would have been otherwise, with cumulative energy savings through 2035 projected to be equal to about two years of total U.S. energy use. The dollar savings add up too: total net savings from existing appliance and equipment standards will exceed $1 trillion by 2035, and these savings just keep growing!

Looking forward

The announced promise to finalize 20 efficiency standards was part of historic pledges made by both the United States and China in advance of the Paris climate negotiations happening this December. In conjunction with initiatives like more stringent vehicle efficiency standards and implementation of the Clean Power Plan to limit power plant emissions, updated efficiency standards will go a long way toward demonstrating the Obama administration's commitment to addressing global climate change.

DOE is currently working to finalize standards for products including residential furnaces, battery chargers, and dehumidifiers. There is still much to be done to achieve our low-carbon goals. The president's latest reaffirmation of his commitment to appliance and equipment efficiency standards recognizes their importance to our ongoing efforts to address climate change and create a clean energy future.

(Photos courtesy US DOE and US EPA)

About the Authors

Lauren Urbanek

Senior Energy Policy Advocate, Energy & Transportation program

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