States debate energy-efficiency standards for home appliances

Your refrigerator's days are numbered. Maybe the motor misfires on your cheap, one-door model. Or maybe cool air seeps out through the crushed-ice dispenser on your luxury, two-door type. In either case, the refrigerator may fall short of the appliance-efficiency standards being hotly debated in Massachusetts and several other states.

It might not seem like such a hot topic. After all, when the economy soars and oil prices plummet, fewer people have the urge to conserve. Besides, the energy wasted by an inefficient refrigerator seems trifling, about equivalent to leaving two 60-watt bulbs on for a year.

But everyone from the energy-conscious environmentalist to the pin-striped industry official is fired up over the issue because big money is at stake.

Supporters say appliance-efficiency standards could save states billions of dollars' worth of energy and postpone the need for costly new power plants. But appliance makers say a patchwork of state regulations would destabilize their industry when it is moving naturally toward more efficient products. The costs and limited choice caused by hodgepodge distribution and extensive retooling, they say, would be heaped on consumers.

Appliance-efficiency standards, like skateboards, were first introduced in California. That state passed a tough, comprehensive law in 1976, soon after the first Arab oil embargo made conservation a required word in America's energy vocabulary. Since then, five other states have adopted weaker standards. Recently, however, powerful lobbying by appliance manufacturers has helped sack proposed regulations in several other states.

Last July, a federal court ordered the Department of Energy to consider issuing federal standards in compliance with the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act. The ruling cracked the administration's efforts to allow free-market forces to determine the amount of energy conservation in the United States.

But according to Mark Ledbetter, executive director of the Washington-based Energy Conservation Coalition, ``there's no reason to believe they won't postpone it indefinitely.'' That worry, he says, is causing ``the flurry of activity. . . .''

In Massachusetts, where energy costs are approximately the fifth highest in the nation, stringent standards have attracted enormous support. And not just from environmentalists, who say the law would save the state $1.4 billion worth of energy by the year 2000. The state's consumer-affairs director says more efficient appliances will save money for the consumer -- up to 12 times more than less efficient models. Advocates for low-income residents say higher standards will prevent landlords from dumping cheap appliances on renters.

The most surprising backers, however, are the utility companies that could lose millions of dollars in sales.

``But it makes sense,'' says Jerry Brown, a vice-president at Massachusetts Electric Company, the state's largest utility. ``Yes, I'm going to lose that additional revenue, . . . but it's a lot easier to hold load down than to build new generation.''

If the law passes, he predicts the company will save about 100 megawatts of energy -- enough to defer the need for new power plants until after 2000. Standards might also make it easier for utilities to predict future energy demand.

Appliance manufacturers do feel the proposal is seriously misguided.

``There's no reason for a state to set up a bureaucracy to manage an appliance efficiency program when the industry is willing to do it itself,'' says Robert M. Gants, a vice-president for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Since 1972, he says, appliances have become 40 to 70 percent more efficient -- simply because of the competitive forces on the free market.

However, Steven Nadel of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, suggests that the California law can also be thanked for appliance improvements. It forced many manufacturers to upgrade their products just to remain competitive in one of their largest markets. He hopes the Massachusetts bill is the next link in a chain of state regulations.

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