Will future home furnaces be more efficient?

New US standards announced this week barely raise the bar, critics say.

Amid volatile and rising prices for natural gas, the Bush administration has unveiled new efficiency standards for home furnaces and boilers.

But there are problems: After six years in development, the new national standards will barely result in any energy savings – and won't take effect for another eight years.

Under the new rule, the US Department of Energy (DOE) in 2015 will require nonweatherized gas-fired furnaces – the kind most used for home heating – to be 80 percent energy efficient. That's up from the current mandate of 78 percent.

"These amended standards will not only cut down on greenhouse-gas emissions, but they also allow consumers to make smarter energy choices that will save energy and money," Andy Karsner, DOE's assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, said in a statement Monday.

But that slight uptick won't have much impact on natural gas use since 99 percent of furnaces sold are already at that level, industry data show.

Energy-efficiency groups quickly denounced the new standard as a Thanksgiving "turkey."

"We need bold action from our government," Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, said in a statement. "But instead, for the second time in a row, [the DOE] has issued a very weak efficiency standard that once again leaves important energy and CO2 savings on the table at a time when we can least afford continued waste."

In October, the department released an efficiency standard for transformers, the ubiquitous gray cylinders on utility poles, that was weaker than what energy-efficiency advocates and even many manufacturers had wanted.

One reason for the weak standards may be the deadline pressure the DOE is under. A 2006 court order required that the department produce 18 new efficiency standards for appliances by 2011. In a ruling last month, the US district court rejected a DOE request for more time to evaluate a tougher furnace standard.

"Our goal is to get the best standard out there that's possible," says Jonathan Shradar, a DOE spokesman. "We do have a deadline set by the court and [the] final rule was issued under that consent decree."

Some companies that rely on natural gas had fought for a tougher standard. An analysis by Dow Chemical Co. and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) showed that a tougher rule could drive down natural-gas prices in the long term and buoy the US economy.

Under the DOE's new efficiency standards, consumers will save $700 million and prevent 7.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from wafting into the atmosphere, over 24 years, DOE says. Had DOE instituted a 90 percent standard, consumers would save at least $11 billion and prevent the release of 141 metric tons of CO2 over the same time period, according to separate analyses from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy as well as Dow Chemical and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Frustrated by the pace of federal standards setting, at least four states – Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island – have already set their own higher boiler and furnace standards, which mandate higher efficiency.

But home-furnace manufacturers applauded the new federal standard, arguing that upgraded components costing hundreds of dollars per furnace would have been needed to meet the tougher standards.

"We supported the proposed rule and we support the final rule," says Joseph Mattingly, vice president and general counsel for the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association.

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