The Year in Energy Savings, 2018

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2018 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

At this time of year, a simple but powerful marker of energy efficiency becomes widely visible: a sea of holiday lights using at least 75 percent less energy and strung with far fewer burned-out bulbs than the displays of yore. The widespread shift to LEDs in U.S. homes and businesses, both for holiday lighting and daily use, is part of a larger energy efficiency success story—one that continued this year, despite the Trump administration's attempts to thwart progress.

The Trump administration has made essentially no progress on efficiency standards for appliances and equipment since taking office in early 2017. The Department of Energy is required by law to review standards on a set timeframe, and yet they’ve missed upwards of 20 legal deadlines, with more coming due in 2019. There are also reports that the Trump administration wants to roll back light bulb energy efficiency standards, which are on track to save consumers more than $12 billion a year by 2020 once every inefficient bulb in America’s 4-million-plus sockets is replaced. Yet these and other federal efficiency requirements have already fundamentally changed the market for appliances and equipment. California this year moved ahead of the national timetable, phasing out most everyday screw-in light bulbs two years earlier.

EPA

Many states, cities, and utilities are choosing to pursue energy efficiency in the absence of federal leadership, because avoiding energy waste lowers utility bills, averts the need to build more power plants (and the climate-changing fossil fuel pollution that can come with them), and creates new jobs. In fact, energy efficiency employs 2.25 million Americans and accounted for half the entire energy industry's job growth last year, according to a recent report from E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs).

Products keep getting better

From light bulbs to refrigerators, clothes washers, and other appliances, people are choosing more efficient products because they deliver the same or better performance while saving money—about $2 trillion over the past three decades.

NRDC continues to defend these common-sense standards. Last year, we initiated a lawsuit over the current administration's failure to finalize efficiency standards for four products: portable air conditioners, uninterruptible power supplies, air compressors, and packaged boilers. In February, a federal judge ruled this delay was illegal and ordered the Department of Energy (DOE) to publish the rule. A DOE appeal is pending (oral arguments took place in mid-November), but we will continue to hold the agency accountable for these and other standards, including those that are long overdue.

The U.S. could make even more progress by expediting new standards and improving existing ones, such as closing the loophole in standards for pool pumps set to take effect in 2021, so that they address not just new pool pumps but also motor replacements for existing pumps. We also need to keep pushing progress on at least 20 other standards that have been delayed indefinitely, leaving billions of dollars in energy savings unrealized and creating needless uncertainty for manufacturers. The neglected products (listed in full at the end of this post) include small electric motors, water heaters, furnaces, and pool heaters.

DOE

Meanwhile, rules taking effect this year but initially approved under the Obama administration drove improvements in five other products, including fluorescent tube lights, commercial HVAC units, and automatic commercial ice makers. Together, these five standards—which ushered out the manufacturing of older, inefficient products in 2018—will help the U.S. avoid more than 176 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions through 2030. Six additional products approved under the Obama administration and scheduled to get better in 2019, including furnace fans, the low-profile energy hogs now subject to performance requirements for the first time, and beverage vending machines, which will become 39 percent more efficient.

States and utilities step up

This past year saw promising developments at the state and local levels for energy efficiency. Vermont joined California as a standards leader, passing legislation to require efficiency standards for more than a dozen products not already covered by federal standards. In states such as Washington, Hawaii, and Rhode Island, momentum is building for similar standards that would mean lower energy bills for businesses and residents.

Many utilities are partners in efficiency efforts, as my colleague Ralph Cavanagh writes, spending nearly $8 billion in 2017 to help their customers cut energy waste. In Missouri, Ameren just received approval from the state's public service commission for the largest energy efficiency plan in the state's history, a package of programs that includes $120 million in rebates for the utility's customers. New Jersey and New York, meanwhile, both set new energy efficiency savings targets for utilities, and Virginia approved legislation including investments of over $1 billion in efficiency over the next decade.

Energy efficiency prospects for buildings also got a boost in 2018. New homes and buildings in Pennsylvania stand to become 25 percent more efficient thanks to the state's newly revised building energy code. California remains a leader, passing two bills that also will make buildings more efficient, partly by advancing the use of electricity over natural gas for heating. California’s 2019 residential building energy code—the first of its kind in the nation—will combine rooftop solar panels with enough energy efficiency measures like insulation and better windows that all new single-family homes and low-rise apartments will use net-zero electricity. And New York City is considering bold new legislation that would require building owners to implement upgrades and set increasingly stringent “building emissions intensity” limits for buildings above 25,000 square feet. On the other hand, several states, including New Mexico, Indiana, and New Hampshire, are still coasting on building code models that are nearly 10 years old, meaning new homes and businesses are wasting energy and money.

iStock/DanielStein

Remarkable progress has been made to decrease the energy intensity of our appliances, equipment, and buildings, and we aren't stopping in 2019. We will continue to demand that the Department of Energy meet its responsibility to issue already-completed appliance standards and to update those lagging behind. We’ll work to strengthen the next version of the building energy code, while helping states and cities to update their efficiency requirements for new buildings. The past several years have shone a bright—yet energy efficient!—light on what's possible with simple, affordable energy efficiency measures. We've come too far to lose our way now.

About the Authors

Lauren Urbanek

Senior Energy Policy Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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