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Bush's first energy rule: efficient enough?

The proposal for transformers would save $9 billion. Efficiency advocates say it should do more.

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Long accused of dragging its feet on raising energy-efficiency standards for products, the Bush administration has proposed its first such standard.

Its proposal attracted little attention, since it didn't mean better dishwashers or more fuel-efficient cars. Instead, it deals with transformers – those ubiquitous gray canisters that hang from utility poles and could save the nation billions of dollars if they were upgraded.

The question is how extensive the upgrade should be. Besides saving an estimated $9 billion in electricity costs, the Bush administration standard, unveiled Aug. 4, may also eliminate the need to build 11 new power plants over a 28-year period, the Department of Energy (DOE) reports. They would also reduce pollution and boost the reliability of the nation's electric grid.

But instead of celebrating the proposal, energy and environment advocates say DOE has opted for "a very weak proposal" – one that fails to save additional mountains of energy and pollution that a slightly tougher regulation would achieve for about the same cost. The tougher standard would save much more than the DOE proposal over 28 years – about 120 billion kilowatt hours of electricity – or enough energy to power 10 percent of US households for a year, they say.

"The new Department of Energy proposals leave billions in savings just sitting on the table," says Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington.

Efficiency advocates: Why stop there?

By comparison, the higher standards Mr. Nadel and others support would require a 12-to-22-year period for the more efficient units to pay for themselves through energy savings, the DOE estimates. That's compared with a 4-to-18 year payback period for the Bush proposal. For that extra cost, utilities and consumers would save $11 billion in electricity costs and eliminate the need for 16 power plants.

If those power plants were all coal-fired, as is the current building trend among utilities, the tougher standards would mean 75 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas and 20,000 fewer tons of smog-forming oxides each year, over and above the DOE's proposed standard.

"I just don't understand why they're choosing this lesser standard when by their own analysis it pays to go with the higher one," says David Goldstein, co-director of the energy program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group.

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