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Twilight for Wasted Energy, the Saga Continues: DOE Finalizes Efficiency Standards Combating the Vampire in Your Microwave

Meg Waltner

Posted June 3, 2013 in Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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New Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz is not wasting any time getting to work on his recent pledge to prioritize energy efficiency and catch up on the backlog of overdue efficiency standards: Late Friday he announced rules to reduce the amount of energy wasted in microwave ovens in standby mode, saving consumers billions of dollars and reducing harmful air pollution emissions.

Even before pushing the start button on a microwave, the appliance uses energy to power its clock or display and for its internal sensors and controls. When the new standards take effect in 2016, typical countertop microwaves will be required to use 1 watt or less when in standby mode (a 75% reduction from a typical microwave today), while built-in and above-range units would be allowed to use a maximum of 2.2 watts (approximately a 50% reduction from a typical unit).

Over 30 years, these new standards will save consumers a net of $3.4 billion through lower electricity bills and will save 69 billion kilowatt hours cumulatively, equivalent to the annual electricity usage of 6 million U.S. homes.

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Manufacturers will likely meet the required lower energy use levels through improvements to reduce the standby power consumption of the cooking sensor, display, and control technologies. Microwaves will continue to perform the same, but while using less energy. The new rule comes on the heels of a recent report documenting how  standards have improved the energy efficiency of appliances over time while continuing to provide consumers with a wide array of product features and high-performing options.

The new microwave standards will help reduce “vampire” energy – the electricity consumed when appliances and electronics are not in use – which when added up throughout a home can result in significant waste. As I mentioned in my blog on the proposed microwave oven energy efficiency rule last year, a 2008 study found that new, unoccupied homes in California consumed 117 watts before anyone had even moved in.  This works out to about $100 a year (at 10 cents per kilowatt hour) to power an empty house! The cost doesn’t even count the devices we bring to the home when we move in, many of which have continual displays, drives, sensors or other elements that continue to draw power even when no one is home.

In addition to saving consumers money to the tune of a whopping $3.4 billion, the new microwave standards will also result in the reduction of 38 million metric tons of harmful carbon dioxide pollution over the 30 year life of the rule, as well as reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury, by avoiding power generation.

In its analysis of the potential impacts of appliance efficiency standards, DOE estimates the monetary value of these pollution reductions in addition to calculating the life cycle utility bill savings experienced directly by consumers. Together, these numbers provide the standard’s estimated overall value to society.  For this rule, DOE used updated values for the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC), which is an estimate of the value of health and other social benefits from the reduction in carbon emissions. According to DOE’s analysis, the carbon emissions avoided by the new standards are worth $1.2 billion (at a 3 percent discount rate), bringing the total net benefits of the rule up to $4.6 billion. Using other assumptions (which NRDC considers more appropriate) the benefits of the carbon reductions produced by this rule would be worth up to $3.6 billion in avoided health and social impacts, such as diminished air quality, impacts of severe weather, and reduced food and water supplies. In the past, DOE has used far more conservative values that many – including NRDC – felt did not accurately reflect the true benefits of energy efficiency standards. (For a detailed discussion of the social cost of carbon see here.)

As Secretary Moniz noted in his first public speech as head of DOE, there is a backlog of overdue energy efficiency standards. The microwave standards were on this list.  In total, the overdue standards have been costing consumers an estimated $300 million in lost savings for every month of delay. Much of this delay has been due to protracted review of rules by the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which reviews all major regulations. While we’re pleased to see these standards emerge in final form, there are still 6 overdue standards that still need to be finalized, all of which have significant consumer and clean air benefits.  We hope that the Obama Administration will ensure that all are finalized soon so that we can all enjoy these benefits.

It’s great to see Secretary Moniz move quickly to finalize this rule and we hope he will continue on his recent commitment to implement appliance efficiency standards throughout his term as Energy Secretary. While significant progress was made under former Secretary Steven Chu, even more savings still lie on the table. The issuance of Friday’s rule on microwave standards is a great first step.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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