Need for Energy Efficiency Continues into Bush Administration

By Passell, Peter | THE JOURNAL RECORD, January 20, 1989 | Go to article overview

Need for Energy Efficiency Continues into Bush Administration


Passell, Peter, THE JOURNAL RECORD


Imagine a technical fix that would conserve two billion barrels of oil, eliminate the need to build 14 nuclear power plants, slow the carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere - and still save consumers tens of billions of dollars.

Actually, there is no need to imagine it: According to a Department of Energy analysis, such savings can be had over the next two decades if refrigerator manufacturers meet tough efficiency standards by 1993.

But appliance makers, unhappy with the prospect of plunging into unproven technologies and fearing they will have to foot the bill for the zeal of environmentalists, are digging in their heels.

The Energy Department, which fought efficiency standards through the Reagan years, is leaning toward a compromise unlikely to satisfy anyone.

The question now is whether the Bush administration can fashion a deal that forces a best effort at technological change, yet assures business that it will not be left holding the bag.

Official Washington has been squabbling over energy standards for household appliances since the late 1970s. Free marketeers argued for free choice: Only consumers could sensibly decide the trade-offs between convenience features, purchase price and operating costs.

Environmentalists - and many economists - aren't convinced. Hardly anyone, they say, has the time or expertise to comparison-shop for $500 refrigerators the way airlines evaluate $50 million jet planes.

And in any case, competitive markets aren't likely to lead to a socially desirable level of energy efficiency because the utility bills of consumers don't reflect the damage to national security and the environment associated with higher energy consumption.

President Reagan fought regulation in Congress and then in the courts. But he lost the war when California set its own efficiency standards.

Faced with the prospect of designing appliances to state specifications, manufacturers capitulated. This year, and every few years thereafter, the Energy Department is legally bound to set the highest efficiency standards that are ``technologically feasible'' and ``economically justified.''

The first big test of the standards comes this year with refrigerators. The Energy Department's analysis, released last month, offers one technical option that would roughly double the efficiency of a refrigerator and pay back the upfront cost in 5.4 years of its estimated 19-year operating life. Net savings to buyers: about $400.

This tough standard could probably only be achieved with a new type of insulation that works like a vacuum thermos. The new insulator is not some high-tech fantasy. On the other hand, it has yet to be marketed in quantity, and there is a risk of hitting potholes along the road to reliable, low-cost mass production. …

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