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Unplugged: DOE Drops The Ball On Energy Standard

You probably pass by them all the time on the street without giving them a second glance: those gray cylinders on telephone poles. They are called distribution transformers -- and they are a crucial component of the electric grid. They serve to reduce the high voltage used in distribution lines to the lower voltages we use in our homes, offices and businesses.

Earthjustice has worked for several years to strengthen efficiency standards for these units because the inefficient models waste a huge amount of energy. In 2007, along with Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and several states, we sued the Department of Energy to force improvements to weak standards adopted under President Bush. When DOE settled that case with us in 2009 and agreed to release revised standards, we had high hopes that President Obama’s professed commitment to energy efficiency would translate into strong new standards. But yesterday, DOE released dismally weak new standards that pass up the cost-effective energy savings that DOE’s own analysis shows that stronger standards would deliver.

The proposed new standards not only sacrifice billions of dollars in consumer savings and millions of tons of harmful pollution reductions, they favor old transformer designs to the detriment of innovative U.S.-made energy-efficient technologies. Today, a steel manufacturer in South Carolina ships much of its best steel to China and India for use in distribution transformers installed in those countries. But instead of bringing the U.S. electric grid into the 21st Century, DOE’s new proposed standards ensure that the nation’s infrastructure will continue to fall further behind. 

More befuddling is that the largest utility transformer manufacturers proposed significantly stronger standards during negotiations last fall. Those standards would have quadrupled savings to $14 billion net savings for consumers over the next 30 years as compared to the DOE standard which will net consumers about $3.7 billion.

According to DOE, even the weak standards it proposed will avoid the need to construct 2,400 megawatts of new electricity generation (the ouput of about four large coal-fired power plants).  But the stronger standards for which we advocated in negotiations would have nearly doubled those energy savings. 

So, why did DOE drop the ball on distribution transformers?  DOE argues that the U.S. doesn’t have capacity to produce enough high quality steel to make transformers more efficient.  But some transformer manufacturers believe that they can find innovative ways to improve efficiency without relying on the best steel, while some in the steel industry would welcome a challenge to increase their production capacity.

We’ll be calling on DOE to reconsider its can’t-do attitude before the final standards are issued in October.