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Energy efficiency can deliver big rewards

New federal standards could cut energy bills by about $16 billion by 2030.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2009

David Dionne, a senior technician, is in the life test lab at Osram Sylvania Corp. in Beverly, Mass. Here, new kinds of fluor­escent lamps are tested for their longevity. Some have been on since 2003.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff


Beverly, Mass.

In a dimly lit Osram Sylvania lab humming with sensitive electronic equipment sits a potential environmental breakthrough – a glowing pink fluor­escent bulb that may one day lead to super-energy-efficient lighting without mercury.

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Currently, all fluorescent lights – including energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs – use at least a little toxic mercury. But before a new nonmercury lamp can become a hoped-for environmental turning point, it must become frugal with electricity, too.

This one isn’t – yet.

For lighting and appliance manufacturers alike, energy efficiency is now Job One. Driven by legislative mandates and the Obama administration’s new push on energy, the US is on the cusp of a massive drive for efficiency breakthroughs in appliances that could pay off big for consumers and the environment by increasing energy savings and slashing the number of power plants needed to run all those gadgets.

At least 25 new federal energy-efficiency standards for consumer lighting and appliances are slated to be revamped over the next four years. Together, they could deliver about one-fifth of the administration’s goal of cutting electricity use by 15 percent by 2020, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy reports.

By slashing the energy use of everyday appliances such as microwave ovens, clothes dryers, washing machines, pool heaters, refrigerators, and room air conditioners, the new standards could:

•Save about 165 billion kilowatt hours annually, cutting consumer and business energy bills by some $16 billion – about equal to the current combined annual electricity use of households in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.

•Reduce peak electricity demand by about 60,000 megawatts, enough to eliminate the need for 200 power plants, each with 300 megawatts of capacity.

•Slash carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of power plants by about 150 million tons annually.
“Energy efficiency can be improved very quickly,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told National Geographic magazine recently. “Appliance standards, ka-BOOM, can be had right away.”

In a February speech to Department of Energy (DOE) employees, President Obama declared his commitment to a faster appliance standard-setting schedule and touted its benefits.

“We’ll save, through these simple steps over the next 30 years, the amount of energy produced over a two-year period by all the coal-fired power plants in America,” Obama said.

Historically, appliance standards have been one of the most important ways to bolster US energy savings. They accounted for 20 percent of overall savings from all energy-efficiency policies adopted from the 1970s to 2000, according to the National Commission on Energy Policy.

Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement, experts say. Many microwave ovens, for instance, use four or five watts of electricity just sitting in standby mode. New standards could mandate one watt, says Andrew deLaski, director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), which is sponsored by environmental groups.