Land of the free, home of the bad: appliance standards as targets in the culture war

Oval Heating and A/C workers installed a more efficient condensing gas boiler in a home in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. The Department of Energy’s new efficiency standards can only be met by these boilers or furnaces, saving customers about 15% on their gas utility bills.

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Oval Heating and A/C workers installed a more efficient condensing gas boiler in a home in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. The Department of Energy’s new efficiency standards can only be met by these boilers or furnaces, saving customers about 15% on their gas utility bills.

Jeff Brady/NPR

From ceiling fans to refrigerators, the Department of Energy is updating appliance efficiency standards that affect millions of consumers.

The goal of the Biden administration is to reduce climate warming greenhouse gases 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 will affect gas equipment. Conservative politicians and media have also noticed the move, and now they’re making unsexy, technical clothing standards a flashpoint in the country’s culture war.

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 will likely do so again if elected next year. Trump has repeatedly claimed that newer dishwashers don’t work as well as older, less efficient ones.

“I have people who say they’re going to wash their dishes and they press the button five times, so in the end they’re probably wasting more water than if they did it once,” Trump said in a rally in 2020.

His claims are incorrect. Research examining the quality of appliances under efficiency standards found that “prices decrease while quality and consumer welfare increase, especially when standards become more stringent.” Consumer Reports’ extensive testing of appliances confirms that.

“Making appliances more energy efficient does not affect their durability and quality. All of that … is in the hands of the manufacturer and their designers,” said Shanika Whitehurst, associate director for sustainability. of product, research and testing at Consumer Reports.

It’s not clear why some conservatives are targeting 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 market.

“The Department of Energy is sure glad to be here making sure we all save money because we’re too dumb to figure out how to do it ourselves,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-PA, at a House Committee on Oversight and Accountability hearing in July.

Perry told Energy Department Under Secretary for Science and Innovation Geraldine Richmond, “Thank you so much for limiting our choices. We thought we were free in America until we met you.”

Richmond pointed out that regular review of standards is required by law. The Trump administration is behind schedule on that requirement.

As part of President Biden’s climate change agenda, his administration is raising the bar for energy conservation standards. In total, the department says these measures will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 2.4 billion metric tons and save Americans more than $570 billion dollars over 30 years.

Clearing the backlog from the Trump administration

“So what you’re seeing now is the Biden administration trying to come up with an update to standards that haven’t been updated in a decade or more,” said Joanna Mauer, deputy director of Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

Among the recent standards approved is one for home ovens. To meet the requirements, almost all new furnaces must be “condensing” models.

Both condensing furnaces, which blow hot air, and boilers, which heat water for radiators, have been installed in the houses.

A condensing furnace is used to train installers at the Energy Coordinating Agency in Philadelphia. A yellow “EnergyGuide” label indicates that the model is 95.1% efficient, meaning how much energy from the gas is turned into heat for a home.

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A condensing furnace is used to train installers at the Energy Coordinating Agency in Philadelphia. A yellow “EnergyGuide” label indicates that the model is 95.1% efficient, meaning how much energy from the gas is turned into heat for a home.

Jeff Brady/NPR

In a suburban Philadelphia row house, Oval Heating and A/C Owner Jimmy Stoykov and his crew recently installed a condensing boiler. This work is organized through the Energy Coordinating Agency, which provides free heating repairs to low-income households.

“We replaced a standard 80% boiler with a 95% condensing boiler,” Stoykov said. He says that the old boiler turns 80% of the energy from natural gas into heat. The new condensing boiler increases that to 95% saving the home owner 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 returns it to the house. The installation required additional work a new vent in the side of the house and a new pipe to drain the condensation.

That costs more than installing a traditional boiler. And this is the reason why gas utilities oppose the new standard for gas furnaces. They worry that the increased cost will prompt people to stop using gas.

Gas utilities worried about “fuel shift”

“If you add the costs associated with replacing the unit as well as the costs associated with venting, it can be cost prohibitive for some people, resulting in the transfer of fuel to electric heat,” said said Dave Shryver, president and CEO of the American Public Gas Association (APGA), which represents publicly owned gas utilities.

Gas utilities already face challenges amid health concerns over cooking with gas and the climate-warming effects of methane, the main component of natural gas.

“AGA is trying to work with the Department of Energy to address the rule’s profound impact on consumers and homeowners,” wrote Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the American Gas Association in a statement.

Both AGA, which represents investor-owned gas utilities, and APGA are challenging the new furnace standards in court.

Still the Department of Energy continues to review about three dozen energy conservation standards. And the process of approving new requirements can be streamlined. That’s because efficiency advocates reached an agreement in September with appliance manufacturers. Together they recommend the department to tighten the standards for refrigerators, freezers, wine chillers, washers, dryers, dishwashers and cooking stoves.

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