Obama’s new directive on energy efficiency

President Obama gave a brief lunch-time pep talk to Department of Energy staff today. It contained a lot of the bromides that he spouted during his campaign. Like the fact that we must end the tyranny of oil, spark the creation of a clean energy industry, modernize the entire fleet of federal vehicles, and create a green-job corps.

But the real tidbit of news in Obama’s 1,400-word presentation was the announcement that “today I’ve signed a memorandum requesting that the Department of Energy set new efficiency standards for common household appliances.”

Implementation of these new standards should, he said, over the next 30 years, save “the amount of energy produced over a two-year period by all the coal-fired power plants in America.” When you consider that coal now supplies half of the electricity in this country, that’s quite a bit.

Okay, the benefits are supposed to dribble in over 30 years. But you have to start somewhere.

Now for details. There aren’t any. But I’ve calls out, and as I glean some details, I’ll share them.

Currently, DOE has developed minimum-energy-efficiency standards for home refrigerators and freezers, room air conditioners, clothes washers and dryers, dishwashers, ranges, ovens, water heaters, light bulbs and pool heaters. There was a standard for TVs, but that was pulled 14 years ago. Altogether, home appliances and electronics account for about 20 percent of the juice that your home uses in any given day. Unless you have gas heating, as I do. Then electric home appliances may account for a substantially bigger share of your power use.

At a minimum, what I’m hoping to see is a ratcheting down of the minimum energy draw by appliances that may already have standards. And get TV limits back on the books.

An environmental advocacy law firm has already weighed in today’s announcement. “Earthjustice has challenged in court weak standards issued by the Bush administration in the past, which President Obama can immediately resolve by simply agreeing to review the standards and strengthen them to comply with the law,” according to Tim Ballo, an attorney with the organization.

And while those long-tube fluorescent lights — the type you see in every business and commercial building — are not home appliances, Ballo would like to see them addressed right now as well. He cites DOE stats indicating that a half million of these bulbs are sold in the United States each year. For these lamps alone, he says, “higher efficiency standands could save, over 30 years, enough electricity to meet the power needs of 10 million to 50 million U.S. households and save consumers and businesses between $11 billion and $26 billion.”

Finally, isn’t it time we saw some movement on curbing the energy use by all of those transformers associated with our electronics — especially units containing clocks or that are perpetually “on” so that they can respond to remote control devices? Individually, none is a hog. But collectively, they put a notable drain on the nation’s energy supplies — even when all of the devices they’re attached to are ostensibly powered off.

I did a major story on this. It was almost a dozen years ago. Isn’t it time we pulled the plug on this energy drain? Especially since much of the assessment of the impacts associated with these electricity “leaking” devices comes from researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — the facility our new Energy Secretary used to head? 

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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