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Congress Manages to Pass a Small Energy Bill That Pleases Nearly Everyone

Dec 28, 2012

Credit: Wirawat Lian-udom.

While no one has been able to accuse Congress of being particularly functional lately, a tiny piece of energy-related legislation slipped through largely unnoticed last month. On Dec. 11, 2012, the House of Representatives passed the American Energy Manufacturing Technical Corrections Act (HR 6582) on a suspension vote of 398 to 2. The Senate approved the bill unanimously two days later, and President Obama signed it into law on Dec. 18.

So what sort of energy legislation passes through Congress nearly unanimously nowadays? The answer is, "minimally important legislation."

H.R. 6582 corrects and adjusts existing energy laws -- most specifically, some elements of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 -- to ensure that newer technologies that meet or exceed federal energy efficiency standards are not excluded simply because they are not covered by the 2007 law. The new bill largely covers appliances such as water heaters, commercial refrigerators, and some heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units, including heat pumps. It essentially provides manufacturers with more flexibility in how they meet efficiency standards with these appliances, allowing leeway for some newer processes and materials that, despite being energy efficient, were different enough that they weren't covered by existing law.

Some of the bill's corrections include updating the uniform efficiency descriptor for covered water heaters, clarifying language regarding regulatory treatment for small-duct, high-velocity systems made by U.S.-based manufacturers, and establishing a separate, less stringent standard for over-the-counter commercial refrigerators which often have large glass windows, making them inherently less energy efficient than other commercial refrigerators.

The legislation also makes new provisions to more aggressively promote energy efficiency and support deployment of existing manufacturing technologies, and requires the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) to take some small action on manufacturing efficiency, including clarification of periodic review of commercial equipment standards and how the agency responds to petitions regarding standards.

The Act is described as legislation "to allow for innovations and alternative technologies that meet or exceed desired energy efficiency goals, and to make technical corrections to existing Federal energy efficiency laws to allow American manufacturers to remain competitive."

Now that the H.R. 6582 has become law, the Department of Energy has some tasks on its agenda. The agency will be required to accomplish the following:

  • Develop and issue an annual best-practices report on advanced metering of energy use in federal facilities;
  • Establish collaborative research and development partnerships with other programs to support the use of innovative manufacturing processes and to support applied research, development, demonstration and commercialization of new technologies and processes to improve industrial efficiency; and
  • Conduct a study, in conjunction with the industrial sector, of the barriers to deployment of industrial electrical efficiency.

In passing the legislation, a number of lawmakers from both parties spoke about the need to work together and how this small energy efficiency bill was a step in the right direction, reported the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which calls the bill "a great small step forward."

While there's no doubt it's a positive step, many environmental groups were disappointed in the bill's lack of scope. The bill is considered to be a watered-down version of S. 1000, the Senate's far more ambitious Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill, which unfortunately fell victim to election-year politics.

HR 6582 also contains elements of a bill known as the "Implementation of National Consensus Appliance Agreements Act" or "INCAAA," a 173-page bill that was a codification of consensus agreements on efficiency standards between manufacturers, consumer groups and efficiency advocates. INCAAA sailed through the Senate nearly unanimously at the end of 2010, but was held up by a single silent hold at the end of the 111th Congress, reported the NRDC. While INCAAA had strong bipartisan support, it was never brought to the floor of the House because it contained unrelated legislation that delayed it until the clock ran out.

Environmental and energy groups noted that while it will not produce large energy savings, HR 6582 is a small step in the right direction, and indicated that it's positive that an energy bill could successfully make it through a highly divided Congress.

"At a time that Washington is grid-locked, it is notable that the only energy bill with enough bipartisan support to pass is one that targets energy efficiency," says Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). "This bill is a modest but bipartisan step forward, one we hope the next Congress can build upon."

From a manufacturing perspective, industry groups and their supporters are claiming that the bill will make life easier and save jobs.

"This bill will reduce regulatory burdens and provide greater certainty for manufacturers, allowing them to stay in business, avoid layoffs and will also ensure the continued benefits of energy savings and consumer savings because of increased energy efficiency," said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY).

Bipartisan groups were glad to have something to talk about in an era in which Congress would have a hard time passing a unanimous resolution that the sun rises in the east.

"This bipartisan legislation is proof that we can move beyond our differences to focus on policies that are beneficial to and necessary for a balanced national energy portfolio," said the Bipartisan Policy Center in a recent news release.

So will H.R. 6582 really save jobs? It might, since it will make energy regulations easier for manufacturers to follow and provide them with more options on, for example, the types of materials that may be used.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a senior member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, noted that the new legislation will directly save jobs in his home state. Sessions, working closely with U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt and Sen. Richard Shelby, both of Alabama, said previous federal requirements on walk-in freezers was making life difficult for at least one manufacturing facility. The previous requirements mandated that walk-in freezer doors use foam insulation, which caused a sharp drop-off in orders of other kinds of walk-in freezer doors, including those made by Bremen, Alabama-based HH Technologies, Inc. Though HH Technologies touts its product as both more energy efficient and less expensive than freezer doors that use foam insulation, previous federal law put it at a disadvantage in the marketplace.

Not everyone was pleased with what they consider fairly limp legislation that accomplishes very little.

"The bill is fairly weak though and shows how little people expect from Congress these days," reported Sustainable Business.

Environmental groups are still pushing for a Senate vote on the full Shaheen-Portman bill, or at least the elements of it that were not included in H.R. 6582. That bill calls for a National Model Building Code, the establishment of training centers to build skills in energy efficiency technologies, an expanded DOE loan guarantee program for efficiency upgrades, zero-interest loans to rural public utilities and electric co-ops to support low-interest energy efficiency loans for customers, and updated efficiency standards on outdoor lighting and residential appliances such as heating and cooling systems.

According to a recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, by 2020 the Shaheen-Portman bill, also called the "Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act," could save consumers about $4 billion per year in energy efficiencies and help manufacturing businesses add 80,000 American jobs. S. 1000 has been endorsed by a coalition of more than 250 manufacturing trade associations and environmental advocacy groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and the Sierra Club (three organizations not always known as great allies).

Still, H.R. 6582 is considered by environmental groups as a launching point for more aggressive energy-independence and conservation efforts in the future.