A more efficient US? Energy agency prods only a bit.

After a six-year delay, the Energy Department proposes standards so moderate that even some firms complain.

Under pressure to find new ways to save energy, the US Department of Energy is speeding adoption of new efficiency standards for devices ranging from pool heaters to microwave ovens. President Bush is apparently on board, too, pushing the need for energy conservation in a speech earlier this month.

That's good news for energy advocates and states that have sued DOE for lagging years behind schedule on new appliance standards, which could curb the nation's rising appetite for electricity.

But in the three standards it has proposed itself, the department has set a far lower bar than efficiency advocates had wanted. Two of the standards are so low that even some industry officials are complaining. Earlier this month, DOE surprised nearly everyone by nixing on technical grounds a proposal for home boilers backed by industry and consumer groups.

"It's never happened before that they've rejected a negotiated standard," says Charles Samuels, a Boston lawyer who often represents the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

Such moves are causing many observers – from efficiency advocates to members of Congress – to question how deeply DOE is committed to energy efficiency, despite Mr. Bush's rhetoric.

"We need to continue what we're doing at the federal level, which is ... to find new ways to power our economy, new ways to conserve, new ways to protect the environment through new technologies," he told a renewable energy conference in St. Louis two weeks ago.

Deep-sixing the home-boiler standard has caused the most surprise. Home boilers are used in hot-water and steam heating systems. The efficiency standard that industry and consumer groups had negotiated would have saved users of those systems a total of some $2.6 billion in energy costs through 2030. But in an Oct. 6 response, DOE said: "The Department has determined that the recommended standards are beyond the scope of its legal authority." Instead, it proposed a lower standard expected to save consumers an estimated $1.2 billion through 2030.

Efficiency advocates were upset. So was industry. "We were surprised and disappointed by the decision," says Joseph Mattingly, vice president and general counsel for the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association. "I've looked into the legislative history. They [DOE officials] have their interpretation of the law. But I haven't found anything to support it."

Admittedly, setting standards is complex, because it involves balancing many factors.

For example: On the same day the DOE rejected the boiler standard, for example, it also rebuffed a tough proposed standard for home furnaces. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy was pushing for standards it claims would save about $8 billion of furnace energy over 20 years. Instead, the DOE proposed a standard that 99 percent of furnaces sold in the US already meet.

The reason? The DOE said the more aggressive proposal crossed a legal line. The plan called for regional standards – a tough one for northern states, an easier one in southern states – while the law calls for a single nationwide standard, it argued.

"We have to follow our statutory requirements when evaluating where the current standards are," says David Rodgers, acting deputy assistant secretary for technology development in the DOE's energy efficiency office. "We propose the maximum technology that is feasible and economically justified."

The ACEEE is crying foul. "This is just letting an overly narrow view of the law get in the way of achieving the purpose of the act," says Steve Nadel, the group's executive director.

Some analysts say the department's choices may be the best possible given the pressure from industry and sniping from energy advocates.

"What plaintiffs in those [standards lawsuits] against DOE are still unwilling to accept is that it is really their own actions, along with those of industry, that are piling up legislation and rulemaking agreements," says Mr. Samuels, the Boston lawyer. With dozens of complex rulemakings, the DOE reached gridlock last year, he adds. "The resources were never close to handling the load."

Other analysts, however, note that it took the Bush administration six years to propose its first efficiency standard – for transformers, in August. Even there, the DOE sidestepped several tough standards that were much more energy and cost-effective than the one it proposed.

Executives of nine large electric utilities upbraided the department for not taking a tougher stand. "Given the energy challenges which face the nation, now is not the time to back away from energy savings shown by the DOE to be cost effective," they wrote Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman in a Sept. 26 letter. "We strongly urge you to strengthen the proposed ... transformer standard."

Utility executives were joined by New Mexico's two senators, Pete Domenici (R) and Jeff Bingaman (D), who sit on a committee that oversees the DOE. They chided the department in an Oct. 6 letter for passing over a stronger standard they say would have saved 50 percent more energy.

"At a time when improvements in energy efficiency are critical to our energy security, we believe it does not make sense to ignore these cost-effective energy savings," they wrote.

Frustrated by the DOE's pace, Congress itself rammed through efficiency standards on clothes washers, ceiling fans, and more than a dozen other appliances as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, observers say.

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