President Obama is expanding public-private efforts to save energy via measures such as thermostats. The Marriott in La Jolla, Calif., installed thermostats in 2013 that use sensors to detect when hotel guests leave and return to their rooms. / Courtesy of Marriott
Despite Congress' failure to approve a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill, the Obama administration is expanding its push to boost the efficiency of appliances, outdoor lights and the buildings of corporate giants, including General Mills and General Motors.
On Monday, an efficiency bill collapsed in the U.S. Senate - a victim of politics. Republicans tried to attach controversial measures in support of the Keystone XL pipeline and against proposed federal rules limiting power plant emissions. When Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, disallowed amendments, the bill fell five votes short of the 60 needed to move to a final vote.
The bill by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.J., contained incentives rather than mandates to boost buildings' efficiency. If approved, it would have been the first major energy legislation to pass Congress since 2007. A similar measure passed the House last year.
"It's going to be difficult for energy legislation to get through Congress given we're in re-election mode," says Suzanne Watson, policy program director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a non-partisan research group. She says there's pent-up demand for amendments that could stymie other legislative efforts.
President Obama is stepping in where Congress will not. On Friday, he announced the Department of Energy will work to develop stricter building codes - one of the goals of the Portman-Shaheen bill. The DOE, which does technical work to develop the codes that states adopt, will push for standards that require 8.5% less energy. It will set tougher standards for electric motors used to power conveyor belts and escalators, and the coolers and freezers used to display milk and frozen goods in supermarkets.
The DOE will help five metro areas - Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., West Palm Beach, Fla., Little Rock, and Huntington Beach, Calif. - replace more than 500,000 outdoor lighting poles with more efficient alternatives. Also, the federal government will spend an extra $2 billion on upgrades to its buildings in the next three years, which are expected to pay for themselves in lower future utility costs.
"We know that making buildings more energy efficient is one of the easiest, cheapest ways to create jobs, save money, and cut down on harmful pollution that causes climate change," Obama said in a speech Friday at a solar-powered Wal-Mart store in Mountain View, Calif. Government data show that homes and buildings account for more than 40% of the nation's energy usage.
Obama announced that more than two dozen companies, universities and municipal groups pledged to join the Better Buildings Challenge. Launched in 2011, the initiative commits participants to slash energy usage at least 20% by 2020 and share information about their energy bills and innovative solutions. New participants include Eastman Chemical, General Mills, General Motors, Volvo, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and several universities: University of Virginia, Towson University and Penn State University.
David Kreutzer, research fellow in energy and economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation, is skeptical. "We already have incentives in the private market to save energy," he says, arguing federal involvement isn't necessary. He says companies may sign on to boost their public appeal, adding: "We'll have to see how much real savings we'll have."
"The companies do see a benefit from doing energy efficiency," says Maria Vargas, who runs DOE's Better Buildings program. Still, she says the program gets them to share their ideas. "They help others learn from their own experience," she says, noting existing partners are cutting their energy usage an average of 2.5% each year.
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