A Bowlful of Cherries

Celebrating Matty and Noah

Cold blast from the past

The Bush administration announced that the Department of Energy (DOE) will enforce a seasonal energy efficiency rating (SEER 13), for residential central air conditioners, rather than appeal to the Supreme Court to apply a less stringent standard. The Clinton-era SEER 13 standard, which will apply to the production of new central air conditioners starting in January 2006, increases by 30 percent the energy efficiency relative to those models sold today.

In April 2001, DOE announced plans to reduce the standard to SEER 12, an increase in efficiency of only 20 percent. However, the Bush administration lost a lawsuit against attorneys general from 10 states and environmental, consumer, and state-utility groups, which filed to defend the more stringent SEER 13 rule.

On Jan. 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected the administration’s attempt to lower the efficiency rate of the rule (NRDC v. Abraham, 355 F.3d 179, 57 ERC 1833 (2d Cir. 2004)). The court ruled that the Bush administration had violated the law when it scrapped the Clinton administration rule and substituted the weaker one. Congress, in creating the standards, made clear that once a standard is on the books, it cannot be rolled back.

The administration’s decision follows the decision by air conditioner manufacturers on March 17 to comply with the tighter standards instead of appealing the ruling. The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute and Carrier Corporation withdrew court petitions challenging the rule.

The DOE conceded that “in the interest of giving consumers and industry the regulatory certainty they need, it is time for the government and for private parties to stop litigating, and start working towards complying with the 13 SEER standard.” Now you tell us.

Under the new standard, energy use by new air conditioners will be reduced by 23 percent relative to the current standard. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, this reduction will reduce the peak demand for electric power by 45,000 megawatts by 2020 (equivalent to 150 typical new power plants of 300 megawatts each).

It also will reduce air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions, saving about 8 million metric tons of carbon in 2020, equivalent to taking more than 3 million vehicles off the road.

Need more? Consider heat waves.

From 14-20 July 1995, a heat wave resulted in the deaths of 739 Chicagoans.

The Centers for Disease Control, in their Chicago investigation, concluded that the use of air-conditioners could have prevented more than half of the deaths. But many low-income people in Chicago couldn’t afford to turn on an air-conditioner even if they had been given one for free. Many of those who did have air-conditioners, meanwhile, were hit by the power failures that week. Chicago had … an air-conditioning problem. What was the cause of that problem?

Rationally, consumers should buy the more expensive, energy-efficient units, because their slightly higher purchase price is dwarfed by the amount of money the owner pays over time in electric bills. But fifteen years ago Congress realized that this wasn’t happening. The people who generally bought air-conditioners — builders and landlords — weren’t the people who paid the utility bills to run them. Their incentive was to buy the cheapest unit. So Congress passed a minimum standard for air-conditioning efficiency. Residential central air-conditioning units now had to score at least 10 on a scale known as SEER — the seasonal energy-efficiency ratio. One of Bill Clinton’s last acts as President was to raise that standard to 13. This spring, however, the Bush Administration cut the efficiency increase by a third, making SEER 12 the law.

It should be said that SEER 13 is no more technologically difficult than SEER 12. SEER 12 is simply a bit cheaper to make, and SEER 13 is simply cheaper to operate. … The Bush decision is really about politics, and the White House felt free to roll back the Clinton standard because most of the time the difference between the two standards is negligible. There is one exception, however: heat waves.

Air-conditioning is, of course, the reason that electrical consumption soars on very hot days. On the worst day in August, electricity consumption in, say, Manhattan might be three or four times what it is on a cool spring day. For most of the year, a local utility can use the electricity from its own power plants, or sign stable, long-term contracts with other power companies. But the extra electricity a city needs on that handful of very hot days presents a problem. You can’t build a power plant just to supply this surge — what would you do with it during the rest of the year?

Commonwealth Edison, [Chicago’s] utility, had forecast a year earlier that electricity use in the summer of 1995 would peak at 18,600 megawatts. The actual high, on the Friday of the heat wave, was 19,201. The difference, in other words, between the demand that the utility was prepared to handle and the demand that brought the city to its knees was six hundred and one megawatts, or 3.2 per cent of the total — which is just about what a place like Chicago might save by having a city full of SEER 13 air-conditioners instead of SEER 12 air-conditioners.


Written by Michael

05 Apr 2004 at 1105am

Posted in Misc.

One Response

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  1. Funny you should have mentioned about “smelling the rain”. With the recent rain we in Sin City have had, it sure has been “smelly”.


    04 Apr 2004 at 1119pm

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