WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the nation's electricity system strained to keep up with this week's heat wave, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced a very weak proposal for a national minimum-efficiency standard for utility distribution transformers. Familiar sights on utility poles, distribution transformers are a crucial element of the nation's electric system.
"DOE has left huge energy and dollar savings on the table," said Steven Nadel, Executive Director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). "Energy Secretary Bodman needs to think again before setting such a weak standard."
Nadel's group and a coalition of energy efficiency groups, consumer and environmental organizations, and utilities support a much stronger standard that DOE's analysis shows would minimize overall costs for utilities and their customers using conventional transformer technologies. According to DOE's analysis, over 28 years, this stronger standard would save 120 billion kilowatt-hours more than DOE's weak proposal—enough power to meet the electricity needs of about 10% of all U.S. households for a year—and save utilities and their customers $1.7 billion more.
According to DOE, by strengthening the standard to the levels supported by the coalition groups, DOE would avoid the need for 7 new power plants, cut global warming emissions by an additional 75 million metric tons per year (equivalent to the annual emission of 50 million cars), and eliminate 20,000 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides. The stronger standard would cut peak electric demand levels by 2,100 megawatts, easing the risk of overloaded electric grids and blackouts.
"With our nation's electricity grids strained and Congress debating controversial proposals to open sensitive offshore areas to natural gas drilling, it's a very poor time for DOE to lock in decades of energy waste," said David Goldstein, Co-Director of the Energy Program at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "It makes zero sense to walk away from such enormous savings."
Recently, Assistant Secretary Alexander Karsner, DOE's official directly in charge of national efficiency standards, asserted: "Maximizing energy efficiency and renewable energy is the domestic epicenter in the War on Terror…" Earlier this week, DOE co-sponsored the national release of "A National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency," which included recommendations to "Recognize energy efficiency as a high-priority energy resource," and "Make a strong, long-term commitment to implement cost-effective energy efficiency as a resource."
"If Secretary Bodman and Assistant Secretary Karsner are serious about saving energy, they need to strengthen this standard," said Andrew deLaski, Executive Director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP). "The U.S. Department of Energy needs to be more than a cheerleader for improved energy efficiency."
Distribution transformers are electrical equipment that reduces electricity voltages from the high levels used to send power over transmission lines to the lower levels used to power homes, businesses, and industry. Because all power generated travels through one or more transformers, even very slight improvements in efficiency can save very large amounts of energy. In addition, more efficient transformers run cooler, helping to extend equipment life. During the recent heat waves, failed distribution transformers have been blamed for outages from Los Angeles to New York. Some utilities have deferred investments in new transformers and other equipment in recent years. In the years ahead, millions of transformers will be purchased and put in service. Once in service, transformers last for three decades or more.
Under federal law, DOE was required to issue a minimum standard for distribution transformers by 1996 and implement it by 1999. DOE missed those deadlines (and others for other products). The proposal issued today is the first efficiency standard proposal from the Bush Administration. Twenty-two standards are overdue for review and strengthening.