Widespread Power Outages Could be Avoided


Thursday, July 13, 2000
10:00 a.m., EST

Henry Griggs, Communications Consortium, 202/326-8714

Stronger Energy-Efficiency Standards for Central Air Conditioners Might Have Kept the Lights On in California, Chicago, Long Island and Louisiana

Coalition Calls on U.S. Energy Secretary Richardson to Issue New AC Standards

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Stronger energy-efficiency standards for air conditioners could have prevented major outages and shortages caused by high electricity demand in 1999 and in California earlier this summer, according to a new study released today by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), a coalition of environmental and consumer groups. Furthermore, making air conditioners 30% more efficient would cut pollution significantly, save consumers billions of dollars annually and eliminate the need for 155 expensive new power plants over the next 20 years.

"Soaring air conditioner use on hot summer days is the straw that breaks the back of overloaded power systems," said Steven Nadel, deputy director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and a report co-author. "This report establishes the clear link between air conditioner use, peak loads and blackouts. Any effort to improve electric system reliability must strike at the problem's root - the enormous peak electricity demand of air conditioners."

Power outages are already starting to hit this summer. In mid-June, nearly 100,000 people in San Francisco were left without electricity when the power demanded by air conditioners outstripped supplies. United States Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and others have predicted more problems this year, continuing the trend established last summer. Secretary Richardson has also promised to propose new standards for residential central air conditioners and heat pumps.

"Secretary Richardson can act now to do something about power outages and at the same time cut air pollution and save consumers money," said Andrew deLaski, executive director of ASAP. Air conditioner manufacturers have pressed for a weak and delayed standard.

"In California, air conditioning accounts for 28% of the peak load, so improved AC efficiency is critical to help avoid the kind of power outages that hit the Bay Area in June," said Commissioner Art Rosenfeld of the California Energy Commission. "California set the first energy efficiency standards more than twenty years ago. If the US Energy Department fails to act now to set new, national standards that adequately address the severe reliability problems of our state and others, we'll be forced to consider our own state-level standards once again," he warned.

The report, "Staying Cool: How Energy-Efficient Air Conditioners Can Prevent Blackouts, Cut Pollution and Save Money," was produced for ASAP by ACEEE. The report takes an in-depth look at four power-outage case studies -- Chicago, Long Island, the South-Central states, and California. It concludes that if tougher standards had been in place starting in 1990, recent major blackouts would have been much less severe or avoided altogether. Dollar savings and pollution reductions for every region in the U.S. are included.

The economic and public health impacts of power outages and shortages were felt directly by more than a million people across the country in the summer of 1999.

  • Scores of deaths in Chicago were blamed on extreme temperatures that contributed to power outages.
  • The same heat wave caused outages in Ohio that cost the automaker Honda $250,000 in payroll alone.
  • In New York City, millions of dollars worth of medical experiments at Columbia University were damaged.
  • Entergy, a utility serving parts of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi instituted rolling blackouts that affected more than 500,000 customers.

In total, the Department of Energy estimates that power outages and other fluctuations in power delivery cost nearly $30 billion annually in lost productivity. The report finds that a 30% improvement over current standards for residential units and a 20% improvement in the commercial standard leads to the greatest level of cost-effective energy savings.

"With the new standards we are recommending, consumers would save more than 2 dollars on their electric bills for every dollar spent on increased equipment cost due to improved efficiency performance," said Jennifer Thorne of ACEEE, another report co-author. "In total, consumers will save $12 billion," said Thorne. The average household with a compliant AC unit would save about $50 per year, though consumers in hot weather states could save double or triple that amount.

"By reducing our appetite for electricity, improved AC efficiency would eliminate about 15 million tons of global warming carbon pollution per year," said Kalee Kreider, Director of the National Environmental Trust's Global Warming Campaign. "With the high costs of global climate change, improved AC efficiency is a common sense step the nation can't afford to miss. These same power plants are major sources of the pollutants that cause summertime smog alerts that send our kids to the hospital with asthma attacks."

The study concludes that "by using energy more efficiently, we can reduce the incidence of power outages and improve the reliability of the power system while avoiding the high economic, public health, and environmental costs that are consequences of increased power generation."

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The Appliance Standards Awareness Project is dedicated to increasing understanding of and support for national appliance and equipment energy efficiency standards. ASAP is sponsored by leading environmental groups, consumer groups and state government and utilities.


Andrew deLaski
Appliance Standards Awareness Project, 617/363-9470

Steve Nadel
American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, 202/429-8873

Kalee Kreider
National Environmental Trust, 202/887-8812