Energy Standards For Ceiling Fans Spin Up D.C. Debate

Ceiling fans help keep you cool — unless you're in Washington, where a battle over energy-efficiency standards for ceiling fans is raising temperatures between the White House and congressional Republicans.

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In these dog days of summer, a ceiling fan still offers an inexpensive way to cool down - except maybe in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., where a partisan battle is heating up over efficiency standards proposed by the Obama administration. The Energy Department is in the early stages of crafting new rules to encourage the spread of ceiling fans that use less electricity, but House Republicans want to put that idea on ice. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Ceiling fans are among the many household appliances the Obama administration thinks could be more efficient, as the government tries to squeeze more performance out of every kilowatt of electricity. In a closely watched speech on climate change this summer, President Obama said making appliances more efficient saves money for consumers while cutting down on carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The good news is, simple upgrades don't just cut that pollution. They put people to work, manufacturing and installing smarter lights and windows and sensors and appliances. And the savings show up in our electricity bills every month, forever.

HORSLEY: Government regulations have already produced more efficient refrigerators and dishwashers. But when the Energy Department set its sights on ceiling fans, congresswoman Marsha Blackburn hit the ceiling. Earlier this month, the Tennessee Republican took to the floor of the House in protest.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN: We've already seen the federal government stretch their regulatory tentacles into our homes and determine what kind of light bulbs we have to use. Now, they're coming after our ceiling fans. It is a sad state of affairs when even our ceiling fans aren't safe from this administration. Enough is enough.

HORSLEY: At the congresswoman's urging, House Republicans voted to block the administration from moving forward with the ceiling fan standards. Never mind that like the light bulb rules, the process of regulating ceiling fans began during the Bush administration. That generates a certain irony, says Kateri Callahan of the Alliance to Save Energy.

KATERI CALLAHAN: These are not Republican versus Democrat kinds of standards. These are standards that help everyone.

HORSLEY: Congresswoman Blackburn is from Memphis, a city that's home to the Hunter Fan Co., he nation's biggest ceiling fan supplier. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Blackburn is a native of Mississippi and lives in Williamson County, Tenn.] Hunter did not return calls for comment. But the American Lighting Association, a trade group that represents fan makers, says the industry, as a whole, has not taken a position on the proposed efficiency standards. Association Vice President Larry Lauck says there is always a concern that new rules could drive up prices.

LARRY LAUCK: You've got to weigh the cost benefit of each standard. And if it's going to drive up the cost of manufacturing a new fan, would the consumer buy that new fan versus just turning up their air-conditioner and not installing a new ceiling fan?

HORSLEY: Backers say the Energy Department already takes cost into account when drafting efficiency rules, including not only the upfront cost of the fan but also, the electricity needed to operate it.

CAREY SMITH: Most ceiling fans use an incredibly inefficient motor. That technology hasn't changed in a hundred years. And so we looked at that and we said, we can do better than that.

HORSLEY: That's Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Fans in Lexington, Ky. His company makes some of the most efficient ceiling fans on the market. They use about 70 percent less electricity than the average model.

SMITH: There are people that pay attention to this sort of thing, and there are people that don't. But I think it's important - as a country, as an economy - that you move in that direction. There is a big, big play in conservation. And if you simply don't use the power to do what you typically do around the house, that's what the country ought to be about.

HORSLEY: House Republicans want to slash funding for energy efficiency. The same bill that freezes ceiling fan standards would also cut efficiency funds to their lowest level since the Energy Department was founded in 1977. The Alliance to Save Energy's Kateri Callahan says that's shortsighted.

CALLAHAN: All government spending is not bad. The House of Representatives is trying to be penny-wise and - completely - they're being pound-foolish.

HORSLEY: The Obama administration has threatened a veto of the House bill, so the issue is not going away. With or without new ceiling fan standards, hot air in the nation's capital will continue to go round and round.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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Correction July 29, 2013

In the audio of this story, we say Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) is from Memphis. Actually, Blackburn is a Mississippi native and lives in Williamson County, Tenn.

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