Stormy weather ahead: Federal agencies begin to roll back efficiency policy

Blog Post | October 02, 2018 - 9:28 am
By Lowell Ungar, Senior Policy Advisor

More than 600 days into the Trump administration, amid constant reports of regulatory rollbacks, there’s been surprisingly little damage to energy efficiency…yet. But now the administrative winds are starting to blow, rulemakings are under way—with a couple open comment periods—and we are working hard to hold onto the energy savings we have been helping to build.

The Obama administration had some remarkable successes on energy efficiency. We estimated that its appliance, vehicle, and power plant standards alone should save over 10 quadrillion Btu per year by 2030 (equivalent to about half of US home energy use), and should cumulatively save consumers over $2.5 trillion in energy bills by 2040.

How resilient are those policies and programs? Here are some local weather reports:

Vehicle standards are facing a gale. The Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed to roll back the fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and light trucks for 2021-2025 (EPA had already determined that the standards set in 2012 are too high), and to block California and other states from implementing higher standards. This would waste 14 billion gallons of fuel a year. The draft is open for comment through October 26, and ACEEE already gave preliminary testimony.

EPA is chopping away at the standards for heavy trucks as well, issuing a proposed rule to exempt gliders (new trucks with old engines), and considering repeal of the standards on truck trailers. There already are lawsuits related to all of the vehicle standard issues, with a stay on the trailer standards.

The Clean Power Plan also is blowing in the wind. EPA last year proposed repealing the rule on greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, and recently proposed a much weaker replacement rule that would only seek modest efficiency improvements at the plants (and gave it a different catchy name, the Affordable Clean Energy rule). It is open for comment through October 31. Meanwhile, the Clean Power Plan also is blocked by a court stay.

Appliance standards have been frozen in place. Due to a unique provision in the law, the Department of Energy (DOE) cannot weaken existing standards, so most of the standards appear to be safe. But the agency also has not proposed a single update and has now missed a dozen legal deadlines. And four standards that the Obama DOE had issued but not yet published in the Federal Register remain in limbo after 20 months (DOE has appealed a court order to publish these standards).

Worse, DOE is preparing a draft rule that could try to roll back one of the biggest-saving rules ever—a definition that applies 2020 light bulb standards to a wider range of commonly used bulbs. Mysteriously, a document on full repeal of the definition appeared on, and then quickly disappeared from, DOE’s website. Such a rollback would be taken to court. DOE is also working on procedural changes that could weaken the program.

Manufactured housing standards never got off the ground. A 2016 DOE draft rule based on a consensus agreement between manufacturers and efficiency advocates has never been finalized. Now DOE is considering a weaker standard or maybe no standard at all, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development considers weakening the existing HUD code for manufactured homes (in which the energy provisions have not been updated since 1994).

All of the above are proposed or potential actions. There have been a couple small final actions. HUD reversed its earlier support for Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, barring the Federal Housing Administration from insuring mortgages on homes with PACE assessments. And DOE issued a required determination (only a few months late) that ASHRAE 90.1-2016, the model standard for commercial buildings, saves energy. This will encourage more states to update their commercial building energy codes.

Meanwhile, federal energy efficiency programs continue working despite roadblocks. ENERGY STAR® is still the leading mark of energy efficiency, and has set and updated some product specifications, despite a White House attempt to end it and a draft bill that would have gutted it. Congress seems set to pass level funding for the second year in a row. And although the administration proposed drastic cuts to DOE efficiency programs, Congress actually increased funding for this year when it finally passed a bill in March, and has slightly increased funding for next year. Although the money is there, getting it out the door has been an increasing problem, made even worse because there still is not a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at DOE.

While the near-term forecast does not look good, we are working to limit the damage as much as we can. And as unpredictable as the course of a storm may be, we know that the one certainty about the weather is that it will eventually change.