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.
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.
Lighting is a huge energy consumer, too, at 22 percent of total US electricity use, the DOE reported in 2002. Eliminating conventional incandescent light bulbs beginning in 2012, as mandated by the 2007 energy bill, will save an estimated $40 billion, cut the need to build a dozen coal-fired power plants, and slash 50 million tons of CO2 emissions.
Earlier this month, the DOE unveiled a major lighting-efficiency standard aimed at two types of bulbs: the ubiquitous four-foot and eight-foot fluorescent tubes common in many offices; and incandescent reflector lamps, the cone-shaped bulbs that fit in recessed ceiling fixtures.
DOE estimates that the new lighting rule could save consumers almost $40 billion between 2012 and 2042 and eliminate the need for up to 3,850 megawatts of power-generating capacity.
“These new appliance standards are not a silver bullet; they won’t get you all the way there,” Mr. deLaski says. “But they do represent a historic opportunity for very large energy and dollar savings....”
One key will be whether the standards are tough enough. By law, the DOE must reset appliance standards every few years at the maximum level that is economically justified and technologically feasible.
The Bush administration’s residential furnace standards were seen as unduly weak by states and environmental groups, which sued to block standards that could already be met by 99 percent of the furnaces on the market, deLaski says.
“We’re optimistic the [Obama] administration will revisit what we think was a lousy decision,” he says. Likewise, he anticipates that the DOE will beef up standards for appliances such as commercial clothes washers.
Until recently, DOE had proposed separate standards for top-loading and front-loading machines. That could allow manufacturers of less-efficient top-loading machines to maintain or even increase market share, deLaski says.
Appliance manufacturers at times have declared that tougher standards were too costly for industry and consumers.
Kyle Pitsor, vice president of government relations for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, an industry group, says efficiency gains can be wrung out of products, but sometimes with difficulty and at higher cost.
Osram Sylvania already sells premium-priced fluorescent bulbs that meet the highest possible standard DOE might soon implement. But some company officials say the toughest standard being weighed for fluorescent tube lights is not the most appropriate.
“One concern we have is that legislators are listening to all the press releases about what future technology can do, but not paying attention to real life,” says Susan Anderson, energy relations manager for Osram Sylvania.
Many residential customers, she notes, have older fluorescent fixtures that are incompatible with high-efficiency bulbs, so the toughest standard would force homeowners to replace not just bulbs, but fixtures as well.
Technology experts at Sylvania say they can make lighting more efficient but that technical hurdles are getting higher. “We’re reaching the limit in gaining savings from the lamp alone,” says Martin Zachau, vice president of research and development. “A lot of future potential energy savings is really more in the electronics than the lamp itself. It’s a growing challenge.”
But the spate of tougher appliance standards are needed to help the US deal with its energy challenges without breaking the bank, says Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Efficiency policies are “a key strategy for keeping the cost of climate change legislation to modest levels.”