Energy Bill Spurs Debate on Ceiling Fans

The Senate takes up the federal energy bill Tuesday — the House approved its version in April. Critics say Home Depot has taken unprecedented action in its involvement with the bill, arguing against a stringent standard for ceiling fans.

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The Senate today takes up the energy bill. The House approved its version in April. The legislation is packed with contentious provisions that could affect everything from the health of the US economy to the global environment. For some, a key question is how lawmakers will vote on ceiling fans. Here's NPR's Kathleen Schalch to explain why.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

To understand the controversy swirling around ceiling fans, it helps to know something about refrigerators and air conditioners, how they've changed over the past quarter century and why.

(Soundbite of a refrigerator dispensing ice)

SCHALCH: This new refrigerator dispenses ice and water...

(Soundbite of a refrigerator dispensing water)

SCHALCH: ...and it runs on a third as much electricity as its predecessors. By next year, all new air conditioners will use 40 percent less energy, as well. Andrew deLaski of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project says the states deserve much of the credit for this.

Mr. ANDREW deLASKI (Appliance Standards Awareness Project): Starting in the mid-1970s, leading states like California and New York, Florida starting setting energy efficiency standards for a variety of products and equipment. And eventually that bubbled up to the national level, resulting in national standards that improve energy efficiency for about two dozen products in place today.

SCHALCH: State standards bubble up into federal standards, because the last thing manufacturers need is a hodgepodge of conflicting regulations. So they negotiate with people like deLaski and Steve Nadel of the American Council For An Energy-Efficient Economy.

Mr. STEVE NADEL (American Council For An Energy-Efficient Economy): What we get are significant energy savings, significant money savings to benefit consumers and all the nation. What the manufacturers get is a uniform national standard and a say in the exact details of the standard so that is something that hopefully is advantageous to them or certainly not harmful to them. We negotiate it, but once we reach agreement we can jointly support, and that's something that Congress really appreciates, when we can effectively serve it to them on a silver platter.

SCHALCH: New energy efficient standards for 15 products now in the Senate bill were drafted precisely this way. This brings us to ceiling fans, the kind with lights attached that twirl away in two-thirds of American homes. States began drafting energy efficiency standards for them, so manufacturers and retailers did what manufacturers and retailers do in these situations. They negotiated with conservation groups. And together, they crafted a standard that would have cut ceiling fans' energy consumption in half.

Then, Home Depot, which sells half of the nation's ceiling fans, did something no business involved in such talks has ever done before. It walked away from the negotiations, drafted an energy standard more to its liking, and got it written into the House energy bill. Home Depot says the negotiation period it agreed to had expired. More states were threatening to legislate, and the rule it came up with is fine. It requires separate switches for lights and fans and controls that can rotate fan blades in both directions. Ken Knutson, Home Depot's vice president for government relations, says this helps conserve energy. The lights, which soak up the most energy, can stay off and...

Mr. KEN KNUTSON (Home Depot): The fans can push air down and push air up to cool in the summer and heat in the winter, which is a real benefit.

SCHALCH: Energy conservation advocate Steve Nadel says there's one hitch.

Mr. NADEL: Virtually all ceiling fans now being sold have these features.

SCHALCH: And as his ally Andrew deLaski points out, federal law trumps state law.

Mr. deLASKI: So you have the effect of having a federal requirement that fully pre-empts whatever the states might want to do but yet saves no energy.

SCHALCH: Home Depot's Ken Knutson says the more stringent standard would have made the lightbulbs and, hence, the fans more expensive.

Mr. KNUTSON: We want to make sure that there's as much selection for ceiling fans and that the prices are as reasonable as possible, you know, both in Home Depot stores and in all kinds of other stores that sell lighting and ceiling fans.

SCHALCH: Conservation groups say more efficient fans would cost $6 more but save consumers 10 times as much through lower electric bills. They fear that if Home Depot's strategy works, others will copy it, sidestepping pressure from states and environmental groups and appealing, instead, to an increasingly business-friendly Congress.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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