By Joe Vukovich, Natural Resources Defense Council
The Department of Energy (DOE) today agreed to hold a public webinar to provide more information on its proposed controversial changes to its test procedure waiver process for testing the efficiency of appliances, equipment, and electronics. However, the agency will give interested parties only two business days after the webinar to submit comments on a plan that has the potential to create chaos in the national efficiency program and significantly reduce consumer savings from standards.
With the national energy efficiency standards program covering products that consume about 90 percent of the energy in a typical U.S. household, rigorous, accurate testing is a critical part of DOE’s testing process to confirm that appliances and equipment actually do meet a standard’s baseline efficiency level. (I discussed the DOE waiver proposal here and the importance of the tests, themselves, in April as part of a separate DOE proposal.) If not done carefully and thoughtfully, changing the testing process could threaten the guaranteed minimum efficiency levels that standards provide. Inefficient products lead to higher energy bills and more pollution from increased electricity generation to run them.
There are three very concerning elements to the Department of Energy (DOE) proposal, which is why NRDC and other groups had been urging the agency to publicly discuss our concerns that:
- Corporations could automatically obtain an “interim waiver” to write their own tests to determine if their products comply with national energy efficiency standards if DOE doesn’t officially rule on their waiver request within 30 days – a time frame that would be a struggle even for a DOE that was committed to running the appliance program well.
- During the period between the interim waiver and an official decision on whether a waiver is warranted, a manufacturer could rate its products using its own test designed to inflate the efficiency score.
- Even if DOE ultimately ruled a waiver was unjustified, the agency would automatically promise not to take any action against the corporation for 180 days, allowing it to flood the market with inefficient products. In other words, DOE would let manufacturers continue to play by their own rules for six more months.
These are big changes that, if put into place, will drastically affect the success of the appliance standards program. Yet DOE is trying to push this harmful proposal through without appropriate public input. Initially, DOE refused a request from NRDC and nine other organizations for a public meeting or even a webinar on its proposal, only offering private meetings. The agency also refused separate similar requests from multiple manufacturers. Then NRDC joined in submitting a letter on June 11 to DOE Assistant Secretary Daniel Simmons and the Office of General Counsel asking them to reconsider, noting: “The statute requires DOE to provide for a public meeting whenever it proposes a test procedure change. The proposed rule would effectively change all test procedures by easing the path for waivers, so we believe the enhanced understanding and scrutiny enabled by a public meeting is needed.”
Today, the agency published a notice that it would hold a webinar on July 11, and extend the comment period to July 15 – but two business days is hardly enough time for interested parties to process what they heard during the webinar and draft written comments before the deadline. In addition, while we did propose a webinar as a fallback option in the face of DOE’s refusal to hold a meeting, we have consistently maintained that a meeting is the superior option. Meetings provide a venue for frank exchange of ideas that is difficult to recreate in cyberspace. (Though we also note that DOE has always provided a webinar option for participants who can’t travel to DC, which means people don’t need to be physically present to participate.)
More about waivers
Test waivers, if properly implemented, are an important part of the appliance efficiency program. Not all products may fit the parameters of an official testing procedure, such as when it uses a novel technology or is designed in a way the test didn’t anticipate. Currently, a company can petition DOE for a test procedure waiver—essentially a request to evaluate the product using an alternative test method. If it looks like the proposed test method will work, DOE may grant an interim waiver pending final approval.
But now DOE is proposing to allow manufacturers to use their own “interim” tests even before DOE has reviewed them to make sure they’re fair and accurate – and to then sell those possibly inefficient products for at least six months even if DOE rejects the test procedure. It’s especially critical that manufacturers play by the same rules. Otherwise, any manufacturer could write its own test to make it appear the product is a miracle of efficiency. If that happened, it would be virtually impossible to compare one product to another and extremely difficult to determine if it complies with the national standard—essentially, the entire standards program falls apart.
That also puts at risk consumer and energy savings. The appliance efficiency program already saves U.S. households an average of $500 a year while simultaneously curbing harmful air pollution. By DOE’s own estimate, the program has avoided over 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions and is on track to reduce our nation’s energy bills by $2 trillion. DOE shouldn’t be proposing changes that will hamper that success.
Unfortunately, the waiver proposal also appears to be part of a pattern of attempts to weaken the essential appliance and equipment standards program via a number of actions that DOE apparently hopes are individually small enough to escape public scrutiny. Earlier, for example, DOE proposed to alter its Process Rule for establishing standards, a proposal which would add numerous unnecessary roadblocks to the standards-setting process and which would make DOE more deferential to industry test procedures in general. We are in the middle of a climate crisis—we can’t afford for DOE to take the program, and the country, in the wrong direction. Hopefully the agency will do the right thing after reviewing public comments and redesign its proposal to protect consumers and the environment.