Power down

December 24, 2003

NEW RULES that would have required appliances sold in Maryland to meet minimum energy efficiency standards were vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last spring because, he said, setting such requirements is not the state's job.

It's up to the feds, he argued, to promote and regulate energy efficiency. In the absence of federal action, Maryland had no "prerogative to force energy-efficient products on consumers, many of whom cannot afford them."

Thank goodness most of the General Assembly doesn't agree with him; the lawmakers will almost certainly override his veto when they reconvene next month.

Since last they met, the inability of the federal government to regulate the energy industry has become glaringly clear. Power was knocked out over a huge swath of the United States and Canada, thanks in part to a failure of the federal government to set mandatory standards for the electricity grid. Efforts to correct those standards and institute other reforms, including some of the same efficiency standards for appliances included in the state bill, are being held hostage to the pork barrel grab-fest of energy industry subsidies that proved too large even for Congress to swallow.

Federal standards would be preferable to avoid a patchwork of state regulations. But in their absence, Maryland has every right to act on its own to protect its citizens from unnecessary energy costs --especially those who are least able to afford such costs. What's more, similar efforts are under way throughout the Northeast region with the objective of putting identical standards in place in each of the states.

The legislation, passed in Maryland with veto-proof majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, sets efficiency standards for nine types of products, all but two of them commercial, such as large-scale freezers, air conditioners, exit signs and traffic signals. Ceiling fans and torchiere-style floor lamps are the only affected items typically bought for the home.

Compromises were struck that headed off much of the industry opposition, but the big-box retailer Home Depot convinced Governor Ehrlich that the measure would limit consumer choice on items such as ceiling fans and require those who couldn't afford the higher-priced energy-efficient models to do without.

Yet the cost argument is even weaker than the notion that Maryland should wait for federal action. It's anticipated that higher retail prices -- $20 on Home Depot ceiling fans, for example -- would be more than repaid through savings on the purchaser's electricity bill.

More broadly, it is in every consumer's interest to reduce energy use as much as possible before the current caps on electricity rates are lifted, beginning in June.

Those caps, applied as part of the deregulation of utilities in 1999, are providing power to Marylanders at some of the cheapest rates in the region. That luxury won't last much longer.

State legislators were wise last spring to begin the process of powering down. When they reconvene in January, they should resoundingly reaffirm that decision.

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