Plans to boost energy efficiency start getting traction in Congress
What’s not to love about energy efficiency? It’s the paradigmatic win-win scenario — save money, protect the climate and broader environment, and reduce reliance on unsavory sources of energy, all in one fell swoop.
As efficiency guru Amory Lovins puts it [PDF], “Using energy more efficiently offers an economic bonanza — not because of the benefits of stopping global warming, but because saving fossil fuel is a lot cheaper than buying it.”
But until recently, energy efficiency has had about as much sex appeal as, well, Amory Lovins. While Congress has tacked a smattering of appliance efficiency standards onto omnibus energy bills over the years, it has passed no legislation that would ramp up efficiency across a wide swath of the U.S. economy.
That’s why efficiency advocates are cheering the Energy Efficiency Promotion Act, introduced last week in the Senate by national-security strongman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and bipartisan power duo Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the Senate Energy Committee’s chair and ranking member, respectively. The bill, which will get its first hearing today, sets a goal of cutting gasoline use in the U.S. 20 percent over the next decade and 45 percent by 2030; compare that to the 17 percent growth in gasoline consumption the U.S. has seen in the last decade, according to the Energy Information Administration. The legislation would also boost efficiency in everything from vehicles and consumer appliances to buildings and industrial equipment.
“This is not only the broadest energy-efficiency bill that has been introduced in many years, it actually has a good chance of passing,” said Lowell Ungar, a senior policy analyst for the D.C.-based Alliance to Save Energy, which advised the bill’s sponsors during the drafting process. “It would be a big step forward.”
The bill — an expanded version of one that Bingaman introduced in the last Congress — would establish or improve efficiency standards for such mundane but energy-slurping items as light fixtures, residential boilers, dehumidifiers, washing machines, dishwashers, and electric motors used in manufacturing. Suppress that yawn! These appliance standards alone would save enough electricity to power 4.8 million typical U.S. households for a year, enough natural gas to heat about 250,000 households a year, 560 million gallons of water per day, and more than $12 billion annually in consumer costs.
The bill would also serve up government loan guarantees to automakers that manufacture fuel-efficient vehicles, help insulate the homes of low-income families, and require the federal government to increase its renewable-energy use by 10 percent of total consumption by 2010.
So what wouldn’t it do? Alas, quite a bit, says Bill Prindle, acting executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which also helped to shape parts of the bill. “There is plenty to applaud in this legislation, but it doesn’t grapple with the two biggest issues — saving oil and setting industry-wide savings targets for electricity,” he said. While it does establish goals for reducing gasoline use, it doesn’t include a mandatory or enforceable mechanism for doing so — for instance, stronger auto fuel-economy standards.
Prindle also would have liked the bill to require utilities to up the efficiency of their facilities and implement programs to reduce demand among their customers under what wonks call an “energy-efficiency resource standard,” or EERS. He describes an EERS as a complement to the just-as-compellingly-named renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, which requires utilities to generate a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. Already, more than half a dozen states have eco-geeked out by implementing both an EERS and an RPS, said Prindle, encouraging utilities to save money by eliminating waste and then drive those savings into building up their renewable capacity.
New York became the latest state to wholeheartedly embrace efficiency last week when Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) unveiled an aggressive energy plan that aims to cut electricity use in the state 15 percent by 2015 while ramping up clean-energy development. Said Spitzer, “It costs one-third as much to save a given amount of energy through efficiency as it does to produce the same amount of energy by building a new power plant. Energy efficiency makes economic sense.”
But while states charge forward with EERSs, Bingaman and crew are holding back. Said Bill Wicker, majority spokesperson for the Senate Energy Committee, the EERS concept “is one that we’re familiar with and one that’s getting more and more attention, but it wasn’t quite ready for prime time.” Wicker explained the exclusion of auto fuel-economy standards from the bill by saying they’re outside the jurisdiction of Bingaman’s committee.
Other legislation now pending in Congress would tackle these omitted issues: EERSs are included in broader climate-change bills from Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), while provisions to raise CAFE standards 4 percent annually are included in bills from Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and others.
The Bingaman/Domenici/Lugar bill, with its broad but not overly ambitious scope, has a good chance of passing, its supporters say. It’s a relatively noncontroversial bill that addresses the climate problem without saying that it’s addressing the climate problem.
“You need several Republicans on board in order to be successful on a bill like this,” said Wicker, “and in this case, the breadth and strength of the support from Dems and Republicans bodes very well.”
Since Dubyah himself proposed a 20 percent reduction in gasoline use over the next decade in his last State of the Union address, maybe he would even sign it. To quote Lovins again [PDF], “preventable energy waste costs Americans hundreds of billions of dollars and the global economy more than $1 trillion a year, destabilizing the climate while producing no value.” That should make it an enemy Bush, Congress, and the whole country could agree to fight.