Blinded by the Light

Crusade Against Energy Efficiency Initiatives Ignores Their Role in Saving Consumers Money

By Taylor Lincoln

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While his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord drew worldwide headlines, less attention has been paid to efforts by President Donald Trump and his allies to undermine energy efficiency standards, which are the most effective way to reduce emissions. 

These actions are particularly shortsighted because efficiency standards have a lengthy record of providing significant financial benefits to consumers and businesses, meaning that they make sense even in the absence of concerns over pollution, dependence on foreign oil or global warming. 

Critics of efficiency standards have regularly put forth gloomy forecasts that they will result in higher costs, reduced quality and fewer choices. But reality has differed, as the experience of the past 16 years illustrates. 

In 2001, as parts of the country were facing rolling blackouts, a task force run by Vice President Dick Cheney forecast that the United States would need to increase electricity production by at least 45 percent over the ensuing 20 years to keep up with demand. “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue,” Cheney famously said. “But it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy. ”

In reality, efficiency measures are the most inexpensive way to offset increased demand for electricity, and the experience of the past 16 years has borne this out. U.S. electricity consumption has increased by only 5 percent since 2001 while the nation’s gross domestic product has risen 75 percent. Improved energy efficiency is the primary explanation for the nation’s relatively flat consumption amid such significant economic growth. Meanwhile, auto mileage standards have been markedly increased in recent years while auto sales have hit record levels. 

Despite these successes, Trump’s election has brought a new round of calls to repeal energy efficiency standards that would save consumers billions of dollars if left in place. 

  • The far-right U.S. House Freedom Caucus seeks to repeal 22 efficiency standards for appliances. The standards are projected to save consumers $212 billion over the next 30 years if left intact. More broadly, the entire corpus of energy efficiency standards for appliances is projected to cumulatively save Americans $2.4 trillion from 1987 to 2035, according to calculations by Appliance Standards Awareness Project and American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
  • The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the Energy Star program, a voluntary initiative that certifies products that achieve significantly higher energy efficiency than others in their category. The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that the Energy Star program saved consumers $430 billion from 1990 to 2015, and $34 billion in 2015, alone. The program costs about $57 million a year to administer, which is to say that it saves about 600 times more money than it costs.
  • The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has ordered a review of fuel economy standards for vehicles to be sold in model years 2022 to 2025. Those standards are projected to save consumers $56 billion. 

The Trump administration also has proposed eliminating or severely curtailing programs that provide funding for research into clean energy initiatives that are credited, among other things, with helping to lower the costs of electricity produced by solar voltaic cells nearly to that of electricity produced by fossil fuels. 

Some critics might object to efficiency initiatives because of the political persuasion of their champions. “The conservation rules are a part of the green agenda being pushed by the left,” said a comment in a report by Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-S.C.). Other opposition might be rooted in hostility to government initiatives, in general. And other resistance may stem from a desire to win favor – and funding – from the fossil fuel industry.  

But opponents should see their way clear to letting their objections go. Government policies have repeatedly and unmistakably spawned innovations that simply would not have otherwise occurred, reducing emissions and saving Americans money without harming the economy.