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Obama has done more to save energy than any other president

President Obama meets with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the Oval Office on August 4, 2015. (Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)
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It’s an understatement to say that the Obama administration has been dedicated to fighting climate change — with its biggest achievements including introducing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and negotiating the Paris climate agreement. This is surely the most that any U.S. president has done to try to change the course of energy heating the planet.

But it’s much less widely known that at the same time, Obama could also be dubbed the “energy efficiency president”– the U.S. leader who has done more than any other to help us use less energy, and pay less for it, as we go about our daily lives. Which, of course, also helps fight climate change.

The story does not command nearly as much attention as the Paris talks or the Clean Power Plan, but the facts are tough to dispute: Obama’s Energy Department has finalized more new standards for energy efficient appliances and products than any past administration, a new report finds.

The Energy Department has also been touting its major progress in this area, but the new report, by two outside expert groups monitoring this space, the Appliance Standards Awareness Project and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, validates the claim.

“If you compare that to what prior administrations have completed, it’s far and away the most any president has been able to achieve through the administrative process,” says Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project and the report’s lead author.

The net consequence of the work has been to push improvements to 45 separate types of energy-consuming products so far — ranging from refrigerators to light bulbs.

The findings are no surprise to industry groups, which have not always been happy with the results. While corporate groups have participated in these regulatory processes and praised some of them, the overall effect has been burdensome, according to Stephen Yurek, president and chief executive of the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute.

“There are very real consequences from this rush to regulate,” Yurek said in a statement. “Yes, complying with these rules costs my member companies millions and millions of dollars, but what is far more important is that American jobs are being lost and consumers, who are already feeling financial squeezed, are being forced to pay more for products they rely on in their everyday lives, from comfort cooling and heating to refrigeration to hot water.”

Of all of these regulations, the most enormous, in terms of energy consequences, is a rule governing large scale, commercial air conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces, which heat and cool enormous buildings. This regulation, alone, is projected to cut close to a billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The Energy Department has called it the “largest energy-saving standard in history” — another way in which Obama’s administration has stood out from prior ones in this sphere.

Obama just released the biggest energy efficiency rule in U.S. history

Overall, the administration’s regulations are set to save Americans an estimated $ 540 billion in electric and other bill expenditures through the year 2030. Naturally, these changes also are projected to cut greenhouse gas emissions — by about 210 million tons annually for the period.

The study finds the closest runner up to the Obama administration’s activism is George W. Bush, who was at the helm for 27 energy-saving initiatives. But 23 of those were achieved by signing energy bills into law, rather than by using administrative action. Moreover, deLaski says, the Obama administration could still complete about 10 more standards before leaving office.

“They’ve been working at a pace of about 10 new standards per year,” he says.

“Taking into account standards enacted by law and those set by DOE, the Obama administration has completed 18 more standards than any prior administration,” the report finds. “Accounting only for standards set by DOE rulemaking, the Obama administration has completed seven times more standards than any previous administration.”

Much of the rulemaking is part of a program that dates back to the 1987 National Appliance Energy Conservation Act, since expanded by further legislation in 1992, 2005, and 2007. The result is that over 55 different types of energy consuming products sold in the U.S. are covered by a program that sets initial energy efficiency requirements, and then, in general, calls for re-evaluating those standards every six years, improving them as necessary.

When it came to setting mandatory appliance standards, past administrations had fallen behind — leaving the incoming Obama administration with a great deal of work to do. The administration not only caught up on past missed deadlines, explains deLaski, but then stayed on schedule, meaning that over the total eight years of Obama’s term, it is more or less set to review and possibly update standards for most covered products.

“By the time Obama took office, [the Department of Energy] had missed 22 legal deadlines for updating standards,” said deLaski. “So all those missed deadlines have been caught up during the Obama administration, and then they also have met new deadlines established in the 2007 and 2005 energy laws.”

Indeed, when the president announced his climate action plan in 2013, one key component was cutting 3 billion total tons of carbon dioxide pollution by the year 2030 through new energy efficiency standards.

The overall effect of improved U.S. energy efficiency over the past several decades has in fact been so great that it appears to be contributing to a major trend in the utility sphere — flat levels of electricity demand. If you take all the improvements that have been set in motion since around 1990, a recent report by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy found, then we’re using 12 percent less electricity than we would be otherwise, as of 2014.

Most people, opening fridges and turning on light switches and setting thermostats likely are not aware of how those efficiency gains came about.

“It’s a pretty quiet policy, in terms of people understanding that it’s out there, affecting products,” says deLaski.

It’s pretty clear the Obama administration will keep on going with energy efficiency improvements through January of next year — but the question then becomes whether the next administration will continue to build on these gains.

If it does, the new report estimates that another 200 million tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions could be avoided per year by 2050 — and $ 65 billion in annual expenditures on electricity bills.