October 29, 2001
EPA Condemns Energy Department’s Rollback of Regulations
on Air Conditioners
by H. Josef Hebert
WASHINGTON–The proposed rollback of an energy-saving standard for air conditioners has produced a sharp split within the Bush administration. The EPA is accusing the Energy Department of understating potential energy savings while exaggerating the impact on industry.
As part of a review of regulations issued in the final months of the Clinton administration, the Energy Department said it would abandon a requirement that residential air conditioners be nearly a third more energy efficient.
Instead, it wants to require a 20 percent improvment, arguing that the steeper increase poses too much of a burden on manufacturers, produces only marginal additional energy savings and would harm poor people because of the higher cost of new central air conditioners.
But in a sharply worded letter and comments opposing the change, the Environmental Protection Agency said the DOE analysis is replete with “misinformation” about the impact on the industry, potential energy savings and the higher standard’s impact on the poor.
Contrary to the Energy Department analysis, the more stringent requirement would save consumers $1 billion over the next 20 years, cut fossil fuel use, avoid the need for 39 mid-size power plants, and significantly reduce air pollution, the EPA said.
“At a time when many areas across the nation are struggling to improve their air quality, the additional emissions reductions achieved by a 13 SEER standard are especially important,” wrote EPA Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher, referring to the higher efficiency, or SEER, standard.
The Oct. 19 letter and accompanying analysis was submitted by the EPA as part of the Energy Department’s formal rule-making procedure.
Most of the major air conditioning manufacturers — but not all — have opposed the higher standard, while energy efficiency advocates, environmentalists and many consumer groups support the more stringent requirement.
Currently, residential central air conditioners must meet a 10 SEER efficiency rating. The Energy Department has said it wants to increase that to 12 SEER, but not to the 13 SEER standard issued by the Clinton administration.
The administration’s proposed rollback also has been challenged in court. A House-passed energy bill supports the more modest increase, but Democrats in the Senate have proposed legislation that would require the DOE to stick to the 13 SEER requirement.
In congressional testimony earlier this year, administration officials have said their analysis of the 30 percent increase is in line with the Energy Department’s.
In its Oct. 19 letter, the EPA said the Energy Department had ignored a “strong rationale” for the 13 SEER standard, while it “overstates the regulatory burden on manufacturers.”
The EPA criticized the “misinformation on product availability” and said the DOE’s technical analysis ignored the fact that manufacturers already have on the market 14,000 air conditioner model combinations that meet the 13 SEER standard.
It cited a growing number of utilities that are offering to subsidize high-end efficiency units to keep down costs.
The EPA also criticized the department for using 1996 electricity cost figures and ignoring recent increases in electricity prices, saying that this “understates the energy savings” that would be produced by the improved efficiency.
While the DOE cited a study showing that poor people might be less likely to buy air conditioners if the price increases, the EPA said the same study showed that 60 percent of poor households live in rental housing and have no control over what kind of air conditioners are purchased, while they still must pay the electric bills.
“A higher minimum efficiency standard will actually ensure that low-income consumers have lower utility bills, providing benefits to this population,” said the EPA.