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Gripes over Bush's first energy-efficiency upgrade

The new standard for electrical transformers, announced Friday, will save less energy than utilities had expected.

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Six years into the Bush presidency, the administration unveiled its first new upgrade to energy-efficiency standards Friday with all the fanfare of a funeral, burying notice of it in The Federal Register.

But the energy savings accrued under the new standard for electrical transformers – those gray trash-can-like metal cylinders that hang on utility poles from Pasadena, Calif., to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. – are not insignificant.

Nearly all the electricity in the US moves through those gray boxes, so even a fraction of a percent efficiency gain will save as much electricity over 29 years as 27 million households use annually, reports the US Department of Energy (DOE). That would eliminate hundreds of millions of tons of carbon-dioxide emissions and the need to build almost five new medium-size coal-fired power plants.

Transformers are just the beginning. Sued by environmental groups for foot-dragging on efficiency standards, the DOE in 2006 agreed to a five-year timetable for developing new standards on everything from pool heaters to light bulbs. (By contrast, the Clinton administration had half a dozen new efficiency standards in place after six years in office.)

But energy-efficiency advocates are claiming only a partial victory because, in the words of Steve Nadel of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the DOE "left energy gains sitting on the table."

Many worry that the transformer standards are a sign of things to come.

New efficiency standards are usually welcomed when environmental, efficiency, and industry groups reach a "consensus standard." In this case, however, the DOE rejected it and adopted a standard that will yield one-third less energy savings.

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