updated 7/29/2004 2:45:26 PM ET 2004-07-29T18:45:26

The Energy Department took a long-awaited first step Thursday to require improved energy efficiency for residential furnaces, electric transformers and commercial air conditioners and heat pumps.

The department announced it will soon issue new proposed standards for the devices. Energy efficiency advocates welcomed the move, but said the department should have begun the process years ago.

“The wasted energy and money and the unnecessary environmental degradation during the years of delay cannot be recouped,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. She said she doesn’t expect the new rules to actually go into effect until at least 2009.

A federal law required in 1994 that DOE review and upgrade the residential furnace standard and implement it by 2002. More stringent standards for the other devices also were supposed to be in place by the late 1990s.

The Energy Department in 2001 said the three standards were its highest priority, but then missed four sets of self-imposed deadlines for advancing the new requirements, said Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

The ACEEE, a private advocacy group, estimates that the three new standards could save enough electricity to meet the needs of 6 million households, cut natural gas use by 400 billion cubic feet, and reduce peak electricity demand to eliminate the need for 80 power plants.

But it’s unclear when a final regulation might be issued.

“Every extra year that goes by means that millions of inefficient furnaces, commercial air conditioners and transformers that will last for 15 to 30 years or longer get installed in homes and businesses,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Boston-based Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

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