States Pressure Feds to Cut Energy Efficiency Backlog

A man fills a freezer in Ohio. Energy efficiency standards for commercial appliances will be updated by next year. (AP)

After blowing past legal deadlines, federal regulators have agreed to update energy efficiency standards for four common commercial appliances by next year. Supporters say the standards will shave hundreds of millions of dollars off U.S. energy bills each year while dramatically cutting carbon pollution.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is leading a 10-state coalition pushing for the changes, announced the deal Friday, saying it will lead to “common-sense standards that fight pollution and keep money in people's pockets.”

Environmental regulators in California joined New York in the push for new standards, along with attorneys general in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Under the agreement, the U.S. Department of Energy has set timelines for updating rules for electric motors; metal halide lamps — those commonly used in stadiums, industrial buildings and as street lamps; walk-in coolers and freezers and other commercial refrigeration equipment.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a group that supports new standards, estimates the four rules will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2.2 million metric tons and save U.S. consumers a total of $156 million per month through reduced energy costs.

A 38-year-old federal law requires the Energy Department to occasionally update appliance rules so that manufacturers use the best technology they can afford. But Washington's winding bureaucracy has slowed that process in recent years, causing the energy department to miss deadlines.

The Obama administration is 18 months late in finalizing rules for walk-in coolers and freezers, for instance, and it has missed deadlines by seven months for commercial refrigeration and electric motors. The main culprit in the slowdown, critics of the process say, is the president's Office of Management and Budget, where proposals have languished for months.

Though it was the Energy Department and not the economic office that signed the agreement to unclog the process, supporters of new standards view it as a sign that the entire Obama administration is looking to address a problem the president highlighted in his plan to tackle climate change released in June.

“This shows that there's a commitment from the administration to get this done,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Boston-based Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

As recently as 2007, as many as 34 deadlines were missed, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report. With Congress' help, the agency ultimately whittled down the list, but it is still behind.

The Obama administration recently finalized standards for two appliances that had missed deadlines: distribution transformers and microwave ovens, according to tracking by deLaski's group. It is also late in addressing rules for battery chargers and certain incandescent reflector lamps, items not included in the agreement with states. Meanwhile, deadlines loom for several other new rules, including some that have yet to be proposed.