A/C Standards Bring Debate


Sometimes air conditioner and heat pump technology surpasses DOE standards for efficiency before the standards take effect.It's an unusual day when a full-page ad in a national newspaper is devoted to new appliance standards. That's what happened last October when DOE announced new proposed standards for the energy efficiency of central air conditioners and heat pumps. A coalition of consumer and environmental groups, utilities, and state governments lobbied actively during the subsequent 60-day comment period against the new standards as insufficient, especially given the technology available today.

The use of air conditioners has increased from 23% of U.S. households in 1978 to 47% in 1997; it is now the largest single contributor to peak electricity demand. In many parts of the United States--notably California, New York, and Chicago--record peak demand has frequently brought the power system to the brink of collapse, and in some instances, it has precipitated outages. Consumers in the deregulated markets of Southern California and southeastern New York have seen the cost of their electricity skyrocket as demand has outstripped supply.

Air conditioners are rated according to their seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). Heat pumps, which can deliver heated as well as cooled air, are rated for SEER and also for heating season performance factor (HSPF). The proposed standards would require air conditioners to have a minimum SEER of 12, and heat pumps to have a minimum SEER of 13 and a minimum HSPF of 7.7. (Current standards require central air conditioners to have a minimum SEER of 10, although the shipment-weighted average unit sold today has a SEER of 11.) Raising the SEER for air conditioners from 10 to 12 represents a 17% energy savings.

Seeking a stricter 30% efficiency increase for air conditioners are Pacific Gas & Electric Company, the California Energy Commission, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Environmental Trust, and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

"Energy-efficient air conditioners are readily available, many up to 70% of the existing standard. It's simply a question of updating the standards to where the technology has taken us," says Andrew deLaski, Executive Director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. He also feels that the proposed standard is "a lost opportunity," because once it becomes final, DOE won't be able to tighten the standard again for ten years.

Currently, consumers can choose from a large number of premium air conditioners labeled 13-SEER, at an average cost of $500 more than a 10-SEER. "A customer in San Diego would have made that amount of money back in one summer," says deLaski.

"The cost of the new air conditioners probably wouldn't come down until these new standards are set, and that's why they're so important," deLaski says. The new standards will not, however, take effect for manufacturers until 2006. In the meantime, making the federal legislative rounds is the Energy Efficient Buildings Incentive Act, a bill that would give tax incentives for efficient air conditioners.

For comparison, the Japanese have already implemented even stricter air conditioning standards. The Japanese "Top-Runner" standards will require the most popular "mini-split" units to achieve energy efficiency ratios (EERs) above 17. The EER is a steady-state measurement, whereas the SEER includes performance at part load. These regulations go into force in 2003, but some units already meet that level.