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A more efficient US? Energy agency prods only a bit.

After a six-year delay, the Energy Department proposes standards so moderate that even some firms complain.

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Under pressure to find new ways to save energy, the US Department of Energy is speeding adoption of new efficiency standards for devices ranging from pool heaters to microwave ovens. President Bush is apparently on board, too, pushing the need for energy conservation in a speech earlier this month.

That's good news for energy advocates and states that have sued DOE for lagging years behind schedule on new appliance standards, which could curb the nation's rising appetite for electricity.

But in the three standards it has proposed itself, the department has set a far lower bar than efficiency advocates had wanted. Two of the standards are so low that even some industry officials are complaining. Earlier this month, DOE surprised nearly everyone by nixing on technical grounds a proposal for home boilers backed by industry and consumer groups.

"It's never happened before that they've rejected a negotiated standard," says Charles Samuels, a Boston lawyer who often represents the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

Such moves are causing many observers – from efficiency advocates to members of Congress – to question how deeply DOE is committed to energy efficiency, despite Mr. Bush's rhetoric.

"We need to continue what we're doing at the federal level, which is ... to find new ways to power our economy, new ways to conserve, new ways to protect the environment through new technologies," he told a renewable energy conference in St. Louis two weeks ago.

Deep-sixing the home-boiler standard has caused the most surprise. Home boilers are used in hot-water and steam heating systems. The efficiency standard that industry and consumer groups had negotiated would have saved users of those systems a total of some $2.6 billion in energy costs through 2030. But in an Oct. 6 response, DOE said: "The Department has determined that the recommended standards are beyond the scope of its legal authority." Instead, it proposed a lower standard expected to save consumers an estimated $1.2 billion through 2030.

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