updated 4/2/2004 1:57:34 PM ET 2004-04-02T18:57:34

The government agreed Friday to require new central air conditioners and heat pumps to be 30 percent more efficient beginning in 2006.

The Energy Department said it would not challenge a January court ruling stopping it from replacing a Clinton administration rule with one requiring a less stringent standard.

“At this point all parties have had their say in court” and it was time to stop the litigation, Assistant Energy Secretary David Garman said in a statement.

Department officials said they would tell manufacturers that they would enforce the tougher standard, although they previously had tried to roll it back to 20 percent.

Saving money, power plants
The 30 percent increase is estimated to save consumers $3.4 billion in energy costs and avoid the construction of 150 power plants in 2020 when the new units are expected to be in wide use, said the Alliance to Save Energy, an advocacy group.

It is “a great victory for consumers who have been whipsawed this year by winter heating bills and then record gasoline prices,” said Kateri Callahan, alliance president.

A federal court ruled that the Energy Department had violated the law when it scrapped the Clinton administration rule and substituted one calling for a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency. The court said Congress, in creating the efficiency standards, made clear that once a standard is on the books it cannot be rolled back.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, consumer groups and attorneys general from 10 states had filed a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration’s 20 percent increase.

The regulation requires manufacturers of home central air conditioners and heat pumps to meet a SEER-13 standard, compared to the maximum SEER-10 standard now in effect. The Energy Department had wanted to limit the increase to SEER-12.

SEER, which stands for seasonal energy efficiency ratio, is a measurement of efficiency for appliances.

'Stop litigating'
While the new requirements won’t take effect until after 2005, Garman said the Energy Department wanted to make clear it will enforce the more stringent requirements.

“In the interest of giving consumers and industry the regulatory certainty they need it is time for the government and for private parties to stop litigating and start working toward complying” with the tougher standard, he said.

Major manufacturers had argued that if they are required to have all their units meet the higher standard, the cost of air conditioning systems will escalate and outweigh energy savings in parts of the country with cool temperatures. Nevertheless, the manufacturers recently dropped a lawsuit challenging the new standard.

Air conditioners and heat pumps account for two-thirds of electricity use during peak summer demand periods. Improved efficiency in these units is viewed as key to reducing electricity demand and easing the strain on the nation’s power grids during peak periods.

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