Time to strike a blow for energy efficiency

January 13, 2004|By Gigi Kellet and Ed Osann

A CONFLUENCE of events has placed energy policy at the forefront of our national and state agendas over the last few years. The energy crisis in California and fluctuating oil and gas prices have forced decision-makers to examine our energy policy with much closer scrutiny.

The Northeast's electricity blackout in August underscored the consequences of our overreliance on a large, unstable and overtaxed power system. The recurrence of these supply and transmission problems highlights the need for conservation and energy efficiency as well as moving toward renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.

Like most states, Maryland is facing tough fiscal times. Budget deficits are forcing many state programs to be curtailed, while an uneven economic recovery is forcing businesses and families to also cut back. At the same time, temporary rate caps on our electric bills soon will be lifted and natural gas prices have been increasing, further straining our budgets.

Unfortunately, as our total energy consumption continues to grow, most of our energy needs are met either by polluting fossil fuels or inherently risky nuclear sources. Every unnecessary kilowatt we consume because of inefficiency puts our health and environment at additional, unnecessary risk.

Maryland's energy consumption, unchecked, will require the construction of more power plants and transmission lines to meet our energy needs and put us further down the road of overreliance on environmentally and economically unsustainable energy sources.

One way to combat these trends is to make use of new technologies that can reduce energy consumption and lower energy costs. Energy efficiency is the cheapest, fastest, cleanest way to address our energy needs.

Many products on the market today allow us to perform the same tasks with less energy, offering us some win-win opportunities to save money and reduce pollution. New equipment such as commercial air conditioners, commercial clothes washers, traffic lights and ceiling fans can reduce consumer energy bills and reduce air pollution. Other states have established standards for several of these products, and Maryland could easily adopt such standards as well.

The General Assembly took a modest step last year to encourage energy efficiency when it passed the Maryland Energy Efficiency Standards Act. This bill would establish energy efficiency standards for nine categories of new appliances and commercial equipment purchased in the state beginning in 2005.

These efficiency standards for new products would save Marylanders $600 million by 2020 and help protect the environment by avoiding the emissions resulting from energy production and consumption. But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed this popular bill, which enjoyed the support of businesses such as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. The General Assembly will consider an override of that veto this week.

If it becomes law, this bill will help Maryland's utilities balance their power loads by reducing peak summer electric use in Maryland by over 200 megawatts in 2010 and by over 400 megawatts in 2020. The electricity saved in 2010 alone would be enough to meet the needs of about 75,000 typical Maryland households that year. Through 2020, these energy savings would reduce the emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides by over 2 million pounds per year while making significant reductions in emissions of gases that contribute to smog and global warming.

The General Assembly has the opportunity to once again promote this much-needed energy efficiency measure. Our leaders in Annapolis have indicated their support for a legislative override of the governor's veto. While an override is extremely rare, Maryland's constitution provides this important tool for the legislature to act when a preponderance of opinion - 60 percent of the members in each chamber - favors such action.

The Maryland Energy Efficiency Standards Act takes a common-sense approach to improve the reliability of our electricity system, reduce pollution emissions into our air and the Chesapeake Bay and save Marylanders money. Its enactment would be welcome throughout the state.

Gigi Kellett is an energy advocate with the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG). Ed Osann is Maryland representative for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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