U.S. Appliance Standards: Big Ambition, but Where’s the Sense of Urgency?

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Andrew deLaski

Rising energy bills, a war that reinforces the costs of an economy dependent on globally traded fossil fuels, the climate crisis—each requires aggressive deployment of proven policies that curb energy waste. Appliance efficiency standards fit the bill, and the Biden administration has big ambitions.

Just two weeks ago, after mentioning plans for stronger vehicle fuel efficiency standards, the president said, “We’re also setting similar standards for appliances—from your air conditioner to your microwave to your refrigerator, washers, dryers. It’s just one of a hundred actions we’re taking to save the average family $100 per year in utility bills.”

But more than a year in, the administration has not acted with the urgency demanded by the president’s ambitions or the needs of the times. Reversals of a slew of harmful Trump-era actions, including rules that blocked light bulb standards, remain incomplete—and it took until now for the administration to propose its first new standards. The administration will need to update about 50 standards in total by the end of 2024 to meet Congress’s legal deadlines and have a hope of slashing greenhouse gas emissions at the scale needed while aggressively reducing costs.

Today we are launching a tracker that will keep tabs on how the administration is doing. In total, we estimate that new and updated standards due this presidential term could cut carbon dioxide emissions by three billion metric tons and utility bills by more than $1 trillion cumulatively by 2050. New standards for a range of household products could put a dent in utility bills, with average household savings rising from the $100 per year cited by the president, a level that that can be achieved this decade, to $230 annually by the mid-2030s.

As the tracker shows, there’s a long way to go. Here’s a rundown of what’s been accomplished so far and how the administration could pick up the pace.

Reversing the Trump-era rules

On Inauguration Day 2021, President Biden ordered all agency heads to identify rules issued under the previous administration that conflicted with his climate policy and consider “suspending, revising, or rescinding” them, requiring that actions be completed by December 31, 2021.

DOE identified 11 appliances standards rules for review and reversed many of them by the year-end deadline. Doing so removed procedural roadblocks that would’ve hobbled the department’s ability to update all standards; eliminated loopholes in showerhead, dishwasher, and clothes washer and dryer standards; reversed a rule allowing manufacturers to potentially write their own custom test procedures used for determining compliance; and restored a policy that allows DOE to consider meaningful improvements for gas-fired space- and water-heating appliances.

But once the year-end deadline passed, the urgency to complete the job seemed to wane. DOE proposed additional measures to undo Trump-era roadblocks way back in June 2021, but the final rule remains in limbo.

And 15 months into the Biden era, DOE still has not implemented legally required standards for light bulbs that will finally phase out incandescent models in favor of modern, low-cost, long-lived LEDs.

As a New York Times article describes, households with the lowest incomes often have poor access to LEDs at neighborhood stores, a problem the efficiency standards would quickly solve as stores everywhere shift their offerings to efficient options. We estimate that each additional month of delay needlessly adds $300 million to consumer utility bills and 800,000 metric tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. There is simply no reason to wait any longer.

Catching up on the backlog of overdue standards

Federal law requires DOE to review each covered product category once every six years and decide whether an upgrade is warranted. When President Biden took office, DOE had a huge backlog of 28 missed legal deadlines, with many more coming due in the years ahead.

In December, DOE published its regulatory plan, which showed the agency planning active rulemaking work on nearly all the standards with past or upcoming deadlines. Over the past year, DOE has advanced early-stage rulemaking work for about 50 products.

At the end of March, DOE finally proposed the first standards developed by the Biden administration—strong new standards for pool heaters and room air conditioners. DOE estimates that these standards will save buyers up to $1,000 and $275, respectively, over the products’ useful life.

Why so slow?

Standards that deliver those levels of cost savings are no-brainers at any time. But it’s taken much longer than expected to get proposed new standards out the door. Part of the problem has been the lengthy review process at the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

The White House took nearly six months to green light the pool heater proposal and four months to approve the room air conditioner rule. Two federal building standards subject to the same review process took six months. Under a long-standing executive order dating from the 1990s, these reviews are supposed to take no more than 90 days.

In a March 30 press release and a White House fact sheet, the administration spelled out the ambition later voiced by the president, committing to complete more than 100 proposed and final actions for appliance standards by the end of 2022. DOE estimates that these actions will “result in more than $100 in annual savings for each household in this decade.” But with 2022 nearly one-third over, and the White House review process moving in slo-mo, it’s not clear that the Biden administration has a plan for delivering on that ambition.

How to get on track

The first order of action for DOE should be immediate finalization of the light bulb standards. The final action implementing these standards, which by law should have taken force in 2020, should require prompt compliance, resisting manufacturers’ calls for further enforcement delays. As our new tracker shows, White House review for the first rule needed to put light bulb standards in place has already exceeded the allowed 90-day review period.

Next, the administration needs to expedite the White House review process. For a presidential priority such as this, you’d think that White House reviews would be completed well within the period allowed. Instead, they are taking longer. Those delays need to end.

Third, DOE will need to keep up its rigorous pace of rulemaking work, setting the strongest standards justified for each product category. The president has set the level of ambition; now it’s up to DOE and the White House offices that support implementation of his policies to deliver.