The Low-Hanging Fruit of Climate Change – Water and Energy Efficiency Standards – Did the Biden Administration Make Progress?

In an early 2021 posting, this blog discussed the opportunities presented to the Biden Administration to take its first steps to implementing its Climate Change goals by addressing the Trump Administration’s Department of Energy (DOE) energy and water efficiency standards, which included a loophole to water efficiency standards, a rollback of light bulb standards and a complete change in the process of how efficiency is determined.  On his first day in office, President Biden announced that his administration would launch a federal review of the water and energy efficiency standards. (See Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis).   

The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 (EPCA) required DOE to establish energy conservation standards for appliances that are both “technologically feasible” and “economically justified” and covered twenty different categories of consumer products.  In 1987, Congress amended the EPCA to require DOE review its regulations every six years to determine whether efficiency standards need to be further increased to more stringent standards – backsliding was not allowed.  The Trump Administration worked to get around the anti-backsliding provisions by redefining or creating new product categories and changing the process by which standards are evaluated.  Beyond developing the new standards, the DOE had also failed to review or update over two dozen appliance standards over the past four years creating a backlog that would need to be resolved over the next few years.

On February 19, 2021, DOE notified the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that is would begin the process of reviewing 13 regulations regarding energy and water efficiency standards. It was anticipated that DOE would seek to undo these regulations.  Our earlier posting identified the regulations that could possibly be impacted.  The question is what has changed since early 2021. Has the Biden Administration made progress?  As seen below, the DOE has moved at a fast clip to reverse the Trump Administration’s actions on energy efficiency.

  • Process Rule.  The Trump DOE established a new “baseline” in order to create a new standard based on anticipated energy savings, requiring a 10 percent improvement in efficiency over thirty years, a very difficult standard to meet.  The rule also granted an automatic waiver approvals to manufacturers if not granted by DOE within 45 business days.    

Status – On December 13, 2021, DOE published a final rule that would, among other things, eliminate the minimum energy efficiency savings standard.  The rule would also return the process rule to nonbinding guidance status and reinstates the potential for a stakeholder negotiation process to speed up the development of standards.

  • Dishwasher, Clothes Washer and Dryer Standards.  The Trump standards created new product classes for both dishwashers and clothes washers with shorter wash times and thus not required to meet existing efficiency standards.  Similarly, a new class of quick cycle dryers were also exempted from meeting existing efficiency standards. 

Status – On August 8, 2021, the DOE published a proposed rule that would effectively undo the new product classes, returning to the original efficiency standards and classifications.

  • Light Bulb Standards.  A Trump DOE eliminated efficiency standards for approximately fifty percent of the light bulbs on the market and allowed the continued use of less efficient bulbs. 

Status – The Biden Administration has proposed two rules to reverse Trump’s actions regarding efficiency standards for light bulbs.  First, on August 9, 2021,  DOE published a notice of proposed rulemaking that would reinstate the previous efficiency standards and set new efficiency standards for around two million bulbs.  On December 13, 2021, the DOE proposed a rule that would establish a “backstop” prohibiting the sale of lightbulbs that do not meet a minimum efficiency standard, further expanding the universe of bulbs that would be prohibited by the rule. 

  • Multi-Nozzle Showerheads.  The Trump Administration showerhead rule allows for each nozzle in a showerhead fixture to count as individual showerhead.  As a result, each nozzle (as compared to the entire showerhead) is subject to the 2.5 gallons-per minute maximum flow rate. (Prior to this revised regulation, the 2.5 gallons per minute standard applied to the entire fixture, regardless of the number of nozzles on the fixture, with the total usage calculated cumulatively.)  Further, the Trump Administration deemed shower nozzles extending from walls below head height to be “body sprays,” not showerheads, and thus not subject to any standard. 

Status – On December 20, 2021, DOE published a final rule reversing the Trump Administration and restoring the Obama Administration’s 2013 definition of what constitutes a showerhead.  The final rule also withdraws the definition of “body spray,” finding that the only difference between a body spray and a showerhead was where it was placed in the shower and thus should be subject to the same water efficiency standards.  Interestingly, many commentators note that it does not appear that many multi-head showerheads were manufactured as most consumers were satisfied with current products and anticipated that the Trump rule was likely to be reversed. 

  • Test Procedure Requirements.  The Trump administration’s rule allows companies to develop their own methods for testing energy efficiency of their products.  The rule  automatically granted an interim waiver request to test procedures unless the DOE ruled on it within 45 business days.  

Status --  On December 14, 2021, DOE published a final rule reversing the interim waiver rule and rather provides that the DOE will use its “best efforts” to review an interim waiver request within 90 days.

This listing is just a sampling of the actions that DOE has taken addressing the Trump-era efficiency standards and catching up on delayed reviews of existing standards.  DOE is required to review national appliance standards every six years and either publish a proposed rule to update the standard or determine that no change is warranted.  If a change is warranted, a final rule is due two years later.  By the time President Biden took office in 2021, there were 28 missed deadlines for product standards, with another 19 coming due by January 2025.  As a result, although the Biden Administration has hit the ground running and picked a lot of low-hanging fruit, more is needed to complete the energy efficiency pie.

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