Energy-efficient appliances about to turn on again as lively issue

Override of Ehrlich veto expected early in session

January 14, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Maryland appears to be at the forefront of a movement among some states to require greater standards of energy efficiency in appliances - an issue poised to deliver the first legislative override of a governor's veto since 1989.

The General Assembly passed standards for nine mostly commercial appliances last year, only to see the action vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But the legislature is widely expected to override the veto as one of its first actions after it convenes in Annapolis today.

Should the legislature prevail, certain levels of energy savings would be required as early as next year in ceiling fans and torchiere lighting fixtures, as well as in commercial washers, refrigerators, air conditioners and heaters, illuminated exit signs, traffic signals and transformers that funnel electricity from utilities to equipment.

Spurred on by California and other states, Congress adopted energy efficiency standards for many household appliances in the 1980s so that, among other appliances, the average refrigerator uses about one-third of the energy of past models.

Maryland and some other Northeast states are now considering broadening those requirements after Congress failed to act on the issue last year. Supporters hope the state actions prod the federal government to impose a uniform national standard, as happened 20 years ago.

"The last standards on household appliances only happened at the federal level when states like California and New York set their own standards, with California leading the pack in 1974," said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a Boston-based group that advocates for energy standards. "Now we're at the next level."

DeLaski said the appliances are already produced by several manufacturers and can make up for higher retail costs with energy savings within two years or so.

But opponents decry increased costs and don't think states should act unilaterally.

"The governor is strongly in favor of national energy standards, but we need to avoid a patchwork of 50 different state standards," said Michael Richard, director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

If the bill becomes law, Richard said, "there's a good chance Marylanders may pay more for appliances or just go to another state."

Richard said the governor favors voluntary purchase of efficient appliances and is launching a series of public service announcements this week to that effect on radio and in local newspapers. Ehrlich will urge Marylanders to buy appliances certified by the federal government as energy-efficient under the Energy Star program.

Industry groups such as the National Electrical Manufacturers Association agree with the governor that efficiency standards should be applied nationally.

Home Depot Inc., the Atlanta-based home improvement chain, last year opposed Maryland's measure because it would increase prices of ceiling fans about $30 to $40. But last night, advocates announced that the chain had dropped its opposition to the legislation.

Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the veto override would go forward with Home Depot on board. "We're moving forward," Bronrott said. "It's nice to have everyone on or very close to on the same page."

Ed Osann, who represents the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he received a draft agreement from Home Depot yesterday in which the company said it would work toward national efficiency standards for ceiling fans, and would not object to the standards in the Maryland law.

"We're going to try to get a national standard for ceiling fans together for 2004," Osann said.

The agreement, signed by Craig A. Menear, a senior vice president for merchandising and hardware for Home Depot, reads in part, "Home Depot will not object to enactment into law of the Maryland Energy Efficiency Standards Act through a veto override, although it includes a standard for ceiling fans and ceiling fan lights with an effective date of March 1, 2007."

Elsewhere, lawmakers in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Illinois are likely to consider raising standards after failing to approve changes last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The New Jersey legislature is expected to take up the matter next week after proposed legislation was discussed by that state's Board of Public Utilities on Monday, said Gloria Montealegre, a public information officer for the New Jersey board.

In California, where energy bills skyrocketed in 2000, a commission has also proposed more strict standards on the nation's longest list of appliances to be regulated. A spokesman said a list of about 15 appliances, including wine chillers and hot water dispensers, to be covered by new standards, still requires approval from a separate state building commission.

If Maryland's legislation ultimately stands, the standards will save enough energy by 2010 to power about 75,000 households, according to MaryPIRG, a public interest group that supports the change. Pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and the air would also be reduced, the group said.

Further, as electricity rate caps begin to expire in Maryland in July, reducing consumption could help keep natural gas bills down, supporters said.

"The blackouts of last summer illustrate the vulnerability of our current transmission systems," said Gigi Kellet, a MaryPIRG spokeswoman. "Improving energy efficiency will help ease the stress and burden on these systems."

Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Scott Shane contributed to this story.

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