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Land of the free, home of the inefficient: appliance standards as culture war target

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

From ceiling fans to refrigerators, the Energy Department is updating dozens of efficiency standards that will reduce climate-warming greenhouse gases and save Americans billions of dollars a year. As good as these savings sound, the standards also are a flashpoint in the culture war, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: A suburban Philadelphia rowhouse is about to get a new heating system.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

BRADY: Down in the basement, the old boiler is gone and a new, more efficient one sits, waiting to be connected.

JIMMY STOYKOV: We are replacing a standard 80% boiler with a 95% condensing boiler.

BRADY: Jimmy Stoykov owns Oval Heating And A/C and says the old boiler turned 80% of the energy from natural gas into heat. The new condensing boiler boosts that to 95%, saving the homeowner 15% on their gas bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC DRILL REVVING)

BRADY: A condensing boiler or furnace is more efficient because it reduces the amount of heat that goes up the chimney. It recycles the heat and puts it in your house instead. Installation requires more work, a new vent out the side of the house and a new pipe to drain condensation. That's extra cost, and it's why gas utilities oppose a new standard that only more efficient condensing furnaces can meet. Dave Schryver heads the American Public Gas Association and worries that higher installation cost of those furnaces will hurt business.

DAVID SCHRYVER: When you add the cost associated with the replacement of the unit as well as the cost associated with the venting, it can become cost prohibitive for some people, which would result in them fuel switching to electric heat.

BRADY: His group is challenging the new standard in court. Groups like Gas Utilities have an ally in former President Donald Trump. He's also not a fan of efficiency standards. For example, he claims newer dishwashers don't work as well as older, less efficient ones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I had people saying they'd washed their dishes and they pressed the button five times. So in the end, they're probably wasting more water than if they did it once.

BRADY: Trump is joined by many conservatives in criticizing efficiency standards, but peer-reviewed research shows newer appliances actually work better. Shanika Whitehurst of Consumer Reports says her group's extensive testing bears that out.

SHANIKA WHITEHURST: Making appliances more energy efficient does not affect their durability and quality. All of that, from a durability-quality perspective rests on the hands of the manufacturer and their designers.

BRADY: Efficiency opponents also claim new requirements restrict consumer choices. Here is Pennsylvania Republican Representative Scott Perry speaking to an Energy Department official at a hearing last summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT PERRY: Thank you very much for limiting our choices. We thought we were free in America until we met you folks.

BRADY: That official pointed out that reviewing standards is required by law, and the Trump administration got behind schedule, says Joanna Mauer with the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

JOANNA MAUER: So what you're seeing right now is the Biden administration trying to catch up on updating standards that haven't been revised for a decade or more. And pretty simply, if it's going to save you money, they're proposing an update.

BRADY: That process of approving new efficiency standards could get streamlined in coming months. That's because Mauer's group reached agreement in September with appliance manufacturers. Together, they're recommending tighter standards for refrigerators, freezers, wine chillers, washers, dryers, dishwashers and cooking stoves. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARTER FOX'S "COSMIC 405 (FEAT. ETHAN STAUFFER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.