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Editorial: The Next Generation of Energy Efficiency Standards

April 01, 2018
Spring 2018
A version of this article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Appliance efficiency standards are largely responsible for the ongoing decline in residential energy use. What’s wrong with today’s efficiency standards? They are not future proofed. I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop on the future of energy efficiency standards in Brussels. There I heard the views of European officials, academics, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Several trends are under way that will transform the appliance marketplace, but I’m going to describe only two here.

The first trend is the rising importance of the energy embodied in the product and that used to dispose of the product at the end of its life. This is partly a consequence of the European Union’s (and the United States’) success in reducing energy consumption of appliances during their operation phase. It also reflects the growing recognition that we must take a product’s life cycle into account. The trend is strongest in electronic products, where embodied energy has already overtaken operational energy. And, of course, zero energy homes still have lots of embodied energy. Europe needs to address resource impacts because its legislation requires it. The United States does not have similar legislation, but some policy makers and NGOs are considering it.

Alan Meier (Yasushi Kato)

The second trend is the emergence of services in place of products. A good example is the jet engine. Manufacturers of jet engines are shifting to a service model; instead of selling the engines to the airlines, the manufacturers own the engines and sell thrust-hours to the airlines. Photocopy manufacturers do the same; they sell copies through a service agreement rather than selling the machines themselves. Other service providers are emerging in lighting, computation, and energy storage. Lyft and Uber are leading the way in transportation. Your cable TV service provider has been selling you a service—it owns that energy-guzzling set-top box in your home—for decades.

Providing services instead of products scrambles traditional responsibilities and incentives for energy efficiency. Will that jet engine manufacturer make efficiency a priority when it sells thrust-hours? If the set-top box is any indicator, efficiency will be sacrificed for the convenience of the provider. Will a company selling “refrigeration-hours” design refrigerators to last 20 years or 5 years? The shift to a service-based model is probably occurring faster in the United States than in Europe, and faster in the commercial sector than in the residential sector, but our policy makers have barely considered the energy implications of this shift.

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European policy makers are also concerned that products not covered by efficiency standards are responsible for a growing fraction of energy consumption. This is important to Europe because it is trying to meet its commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Many of these products—such as elevators, walk-in refrigerators, and large motor systems—are in the industrial and commercial sectors. They are typically custom designed, unlike the mass-produced refrigerators and similar products found in homes.

And then there’s the issue of disposal. Should worn-out appliances become landfill, or should they be disassembled for reuse and recycling? One presentation—definitely worth viewing—showed how appliances can be manufactured to self-disassemble in ways that will amaze you. Nonlandfill options are closer than you think.

For years innovations in energy efficiency policies have flowed from Washington to the rest of the world. Now it’s time for us to carefully monitor what others are doing, especially if we decide to take into account the appliance’s life cycle impact on resources. When the climate changes in Washington, we will be ready to move quickly (and learn from the current administration’s missteps).

Alan Meier is Senior Executive Editor of Home Energy.

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