How Bill Richardson helped rescue the planet

Source: By Dan Reicher and Andrew deLaski, The Hill • Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2023

Bill Richardson, who died earlier this month, has been rightly lauded for his high-risk, high-profile efforts to rescue Americans who had been wrongly detained or held hostage in countries around the globe. Less well known are the brave and pathbreaking steps he took as energy secretary to help rescue the planet from climate change by making dramatic improvements in energy efficiency.

Of course, energy efficiency, in particular Richardson’s efforts to cut home energy use, is not as swashbuckling as prisoner rescues. But the energy efficiency standards he set avoided the need — and cost — to build dozens of new carbon-emitting power plants and saved Americans billions of dollars on utility bills. President Bill Clinton said that one of Richardson’s efficiency standards, for energy-intensive air conditioners, would “serve as a foundation upon which our nation can continue to meet the profound challenge of climate change.” These standards are also relevant today as the Biden administration confronts some of the very same claims from congressional opponents that Richardson had to face down decades ago in his efficiency work.

As energy secretary from 1998 to 2001, Richardson made tough calls to strengthen efficiency standards for some of the most significant energy-using products in our homes — central air conditioners, heat pumps, water heaters and clothes washers. And he did so while having to put the entire federal appliance standards program back on track after House Speaker Newt Gingrich succeeded in enacting legislationthat imposed a moratorium on these requirements.

The central AC decision was especially important — and contentious — because of the size of the market and vast amount of electricity that air conditioners use. The Department of Energy proposed a standard that would improve AC efficiency by 20 percent and heat pumps by 30 percent (heat pumps, like air conditioners, provide cooling but also run in reverse to produce heat).

Environmental and consumer advocates called for a 30 percent standard across the board, while manufacturers lobbied for a 20 percent AC standard, arguing that the benefits of a more aggressive requirement were too small, the burdens on manufacturers were too high and costs for consumers would skyrocket. The AC companies threatened to go to Congress, the incoming Bush administration, and the courts to overturn a stronger standard. Meanwhile, Richardson’s deputies and advisers were divided, with most recommending he adopt the weaker standard.

After weeks of debate, Richardson rejected industry and staff advice, choosing the stronger standard. The rule went immediately to the White House for final reviewbut lingered there for weeks, with top economic and environmental officials fiercely divided on a final decision. Efficiency advocates pushed the president in a punchy ad featuring a snowball-wielding Clinton and the plea “President Clinton, Please Don’t Drop the Ball on Air Conditioning Standards.”

And Richardson kept at it — using the shuttle diplomacy that became so vital in his political prisoner rescues years later — pressing the president and his top advisors to adopt the 30 percent standard. He prevailed, and just hours before the end of the Clinton administration, the president approved the more aggressive standard. Richardson called it “one of the biggest environmental achievements of the Clinton administration.”

The incoming Bush administration quickly reversed the standard, prompting federal lawsuits by multiple states, plus environmental, consumer and low-income advocates. The plaintiffs prevailed, and the 30 percent standard was reinstated, taking effect in 2006, with every new central AC and heat pump sold from then on required to meet the new standard. This decision alone avoided the need to build 39 large power plants to meet the massive electricity demand from air conditioning on hot days and simultaneously avoid significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Six years later, a major study found that consumers continued to enjoy a wide range of choice in high-performing ACs and heat pumps and, while prices did rise, the additional cost was paid back in lower consumer energy bills.

In time, the air-conditioner industry embraced the very standards it had so vociferously opposed — and actually supported even stronger standards that took effect in 2015 and this year. Manufacturers supported these stricter standards because regulatory uncertainty stalls investment in the design and engineering needed to achieve even greater energy efficiency and reduce product prices. And because of lessons from the 30 percent standard, industry and efficiency advocates reached these increased requirements via a consensus-based process.

Meanwhile, heat pumps, barely a blip on the technology landscape two decades ago, have become a pillar of current strategies to decarbonize buildings. Ensuring high-efficiency heat pumps — as Richardson did — lowers building energy costs significantly.

Richardson’s legacy on appliance standards is instructive today. The Trump administration rolled back some existing efficiency standards and failed to update other ones as required. The Biden administration, under Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and borrowing from the Richardson playbook, has been cutting through the thicket of weakened and overdue standards.

Unfortunately, some in Congress now claim that the proposed Biden standards would cause skyrocketing appliance prices and yield little consumer benefit. One pending House bill, for example, would make any increase in appliance cost grounds for rejecting improved standards, regardless of consumer energy savings, and also allow wholesale revocation of existing standards.

The lessons Bill Richardson taught us — that strong efficiency standards are a big winner for both our planet and our pocketbooks — are front and center today as we wage an even more daunting rescue effort.

Dan Reicher was Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Andrew deLaski has been the Executive Director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project since 1999. John Mandyckwas V.P. for Government and International Relations from 1998 to 2009 for Carrier Corporation, a global air conditioner manufacturer.