Buying a better refrigerator not only saves money; it helps save the world.
That could be the motto of a movement to make household appliances more energy-efficient. The governments of both New York State and New York City have been playing a prominent role in this push -- both by their purchasing power, and through litigation.
What Is Energy Efficiency
Virtually nobody disputes the wide impact of energy useâ€¦
â€˘ on national security, because of a reliance on foreign sources of oil
â€˘ on health, because of emissions from many energy sources
â€˘ on the economy, because high energy prices are a burden on families and businesses, and the reliability of electricity systems are integral to the economic health of entire regions.
For the environment as well, there is less and less argument that emissions from energy sources causes pollution and global warming.
Appliances in the typical American home account for about 20 percent of its energy use.
And refrigerators are the single appliance that uses the most energy in most households.
One way to reduce energy use is by making appliances more efficient. An efficient refrigerator is one, of course, that keeps the food cool using less electricity. The ways this can be achieved are through such technology as improved insulation, a more effective defrosting mechanism, which reduces frost build-up, and so forth.
The federal government has set a series of energy-efficiency standards for refrigerators and other appliances. If a product meets stricter, voluntary standards, the manufacturer can affix an Energy Star label on it.
But many believe the standards set by the federal government do not go far enough. The Department of Energy's recent proposal for home furnaces, for example, has been criticized as especially weak.
And the City of New York is at the forefront of pushing for higher standards.
"Appliance and equipment efficiency standards are one of the most critical means to save energy and to improve overall air quality and public health," says Michael Cardoza who, as the head of the New York City Corporation Counsel, is the city's top lawyer. "New York City residents and businesses pay some of the highest energy prices in the country, and the cost improvements of more efficient appliances will be a benefit to all New Yorkers."
What City Hall Is Doing
1. The Power Of The Purse
The city government is the number one energy user in New York, consuming 10 percent of all city electricity. It is also a large purchaser of appliances. The city government makes a point of purchasing energy efficient products, creating an incentive for suppliers to produce them. City Hall passed what is considered a model law last year requiring that all energy-using products purchased by a municipal agency have the Energy Star label.
2.Fighting For Standards
Since 2003, city officials have been supporting efforts to strengthen energy efficiency standards for appliances in New York State and across the nation as a whole.
In its most recent victory last month, the Bloomberg administration was one of 15 plaintiffs in a successful lawsuit spearheaded by the New York State's Attorney General against the federal Department of Energy to force it to update efficiency standards for appliances; in some cases, the department had not updated standards for up to 14 years. The new standards -- which cover appliances like air conditioners, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and ovens -- will all be developed within five years.
The energy savings from these higher standards, according to an estimate by the Natural Resource Defense Council, will equal that of 12 million households â€“ enough, in other words, to supply the power of four New York Cities for an entire year.
Advocates argue that the states, rather than the federal government, have led the way to appliance standards. States may regulate energy efficiency standards for appliances not regulated by the Department of Energy, but, if a federal standard does exist and a state wishes to require a stricter standard, it must petition the Energy Department.
Advocacy and Incentive
Absent regulations, products that exceed the required standards are being manufactured, but incentives to purchase them don't exist in certain circumstances. As an example, Katherine Kennedy, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, points to the "tenant/landlord divide".
"While tenants have to pay the high energy costs, they are not the ones who invest in energy saving appliances," she says. "The landlords do, and they have no incentive to reduce energy use because they don't pay the bills." Two-thirds of households in the city are rentals. And many renters do not actually own their major appliances.
New York State offers a loan assistance program that offers a reduced interest rate for investments in energy efficiency improvements like the purchase of new appliances with the Energy Star label. The program is available for households, landlords, and businesses.
The Appliance Standards Awareness Project recommends 15 appliances that states should set new standards for, such as hot tubs and walk-in freezers.
What NYC Shoppers Can Do
For those householders who are shopping for new appliances, the Natural Resources Defense Council offers a guide for what to look for when shopping. Simply by replacing old appliances, consumers can save over $100 a year with new refrigerators and with new clothes washers, depending on the age of the old appliance. Additional energy can be saved by purchasing appliances with the Energy Star label.
The Rocky Mountain Institute, a research and consulting non profit, recommends further actions a household can take to improve the efficiency of their appliances. One can move the refrigerator away from heat sources, seal leaks and improve insulation to keep a home warm or cool, and plug computers and entertainment systems into a power strip that can be turned off (many electronics still consume energy when turned off).