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Super air conditioners: big chill on energy waste

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Each summer as 120-degree heat shimmers silver waves across the Mojave Desert, residents of this inferno crank the thermostat down. Air-conditioner compressors and fan motors often run 24-hours a day and for weeks on end.

The problem is that many air conditioners in this torrid zone are huge power hogs. Which puts Steve Bouman in an unusual position. As head of energy efficiency programs for Mohave Electric, a small power cooperative based in Bullhead City, Ariz., he's got a front-row seat to one of the biggest campaigns for energy efficiency the nation has undertaken in years: high-efficiency air conditioning.

With the new plan, the United States should be able to keep cool while keeping energy consumption under control. Without it, the nation by 2020 would have to build more than 80 new power plants, creating about as much carbon annually as 3 million cars, according to one estimate. And it comes from a Republican administration, following a court battle in which it sought weaker standards.

So, without much fanfare, the US Department of Energy in April announced that all central home units (which use the lion's share of power, compared to just 12 percent for window units) sold in the US must achieve a "seasonal energy efficiency ratio" of 13 starting in January 2006. That's 30 percent more efficient than today's minimum standard of 10 SEER. (The SEER rating is calculated by dividing the total amount of heat removed from the air by the total energy required by the unit.)

Though the standard hasn't kicked in yet, manufacturers are racing to revamp production lines now and consumers are beginning to make the switch, starting with hot places like Bullhead City.

"We're not only in the desert, but the hottest part of the desert," says Mr. Bouman. "We're about 10 degrees hotter than Phoenix. Still, we have a lot of old-timers here who don't have AC. It's 110 to 115 degrees in their homes, but they're used to it."

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