Land of the free, home of the inefficient: appliance standards as culture war target
From ceiling fans to refrigerators, the Department of Energy is updating appliance efficiency standards that would affect millions of consumers.
The Biden administration's goal is to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gasses and save Americans billions of dollars a year in utility costs. But the administration is facing pushback from the natural gas industry, because some new standards would affect gas appliances. Conservative politicians and media have taken notice of the measures, too, and they've now made unsexy, technical appliance standards a flashpoint in the country's culture war.
The resistance to energy efficiency moves comes from the top of the Republican Party. Former President Donald Trump has a history of rolling back efficiency standards and likely would again if elected next year. Trump has repeatedly claimed that newer dishwashers don't work as well as older, less efficient ones.
"I had people saying they'd wash their dishes and they'd press the button five times, so in the end they're probably wasting more water than if they did it once," Trump said at a 2020 rally.
His claims are incorrect. Research examining the quality of appliances subject to efficiency standards finds "that prices declined while quality and consumer welfare increased, especially when standards become more stringent." Extensive testing on appliances at Consumer Reports bears that out.
"Making appliances more energy efficient does not affect their durability and quality. All of that... rests on the hands of the manufacturer and their designers," says Shanika Whitehurst, associate director for product sustainability, research and testing at Consumer Reports.
It's unclear why some conservatives have focused on energy efficiency as a target. But many of their assertions feed into broader narratives about alleged government overreach. They argue, for example, that efficiency standards limit consumer choices by removing older, less efficient products from the marketplace.
"Sure am happy the Department of Energy is out here making sure that we can all save money because we're too dumb to figure out how to do it ourselves," Rep. Scott Perry, R-PA, said at a House Committee on Oversight and Accountability hearing last July.
Perry told Energy Department Under Secretary for Science and Innovation Geraldine Richmond, "Thank you very much for limiting our choices. We thought we were free in America until we met you folks."
Richmond pointed out that regularly reviewing standards is required by law. The Trump administration was behind schedule on that requirement.
As part of President Biden's climate change agenda, his administration has stepped up reviews for energy conservation standards. Collectively, the department says in updated statistics released December 29, that these measures will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 2.5 billion metric tons and save Americans nearly $1 trillion dollars over 30 years.
Clearing a backlog from the Trump administration
"So what you're seeing right now is the Biden administration trying to catch up on updating standards that haven't been revised for a decade or more," says Joanna Mauer, deputy director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.
Among recent standards approved is one for home furnaces. To meet requirements, pretty much all new furnaces would have to be "condensing" models.
Both condensing furnaces, which blow hot air, and boilers, which heat water for radiators, are already being installed in homes.
In a suburban Philadelphia row house, Oval Heating and A/C Owner Jimmy Stoykov and his crew recently installed a condensing boiler. This work was organized through the Energy Coordinating Agency, which provides free heating repairs to low-income households.
"We are replacing a standard 80% boiler with a 95% condensing boiler," said Stoykov. He says the old boiler turned 80% of the energy from natural gas into heat. The new condensing boiler boosts that to 95% — saving the homeowner 15% on their gas bill.
A condensing boiler or furnace is more efficient because it reduces the amount of heat that goes up the chimney. It recycles the heat and puts it back into the house instead. Installation requires more work — a new vent out the side of the house and a new pipe to drain condensation.
That costs more than installing a traditional boiler. And it's why gas utilities oppose the new standard for gas furnaces. They worry the extra cost will prompt people to stop using gas.
Gas utilities are worried about "fuel switching"
"When you add the costs associated with the replacement of the unit as well as the costs associated with the venting, it can become cost prohibitive for some people, which would result in them fuel switching to electric heat," says Dave Schryver, president and CEO of the American Public Gas Association (APGA), which represents publicly owned gas utilities.
"AGA has attempted to work with the Department of Energy to address the rule's profound impacts on consumers and homeowners," wrote Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the American Gas Association in a statement.
Both the AGA, which represents investor-owned gas utilities, and the APGA are challenging the new furnace standards in court.
Still the Energy Department is proceeding with reviews of about three dozen energy conservation standards. And the process of approving new requirements could get streamlined. That's because efficiency advocates reached agreement in September with appliance manufacturers. Together they're recommending the department tighten standards for refrigerators, freezers, wine chillers, washers, dryers, dishwashers and cooking stoves.
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