updated 4/12/2005 4:48:50 PM ET 2005-04-12T20:48:50

The efficiency of ceiling fans may not be at the center of the country’s energy debate, given record high gasoline prices. Yet the issue has become a focus of critics, including congressional Democrats, who complain Congress is not doing enough to address conservation as part of a broad energy bill.

When the House recently began writing a revised package of energy proposals, Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., wasted no time offering an amendment — the first out of the block — that would call for the Energy Department to establish a federal efficiency standard for home ceiling fans.

But Democrats and outside energy efficiency advocates said Deal’s measure would pre-empt stronger fan efficiency requirements already approved or being considered in more than half dozen states, calling it a step backward in efforts to curb energy use.

Congress not only “is doing far too little to improve energy efficiency,” but also “will pre-empt stronger state standards,” said Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, arguing against Deal’s measure.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., also expressed misgivings over Deal’s amendment, but it was quickly approved, 29-17, by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The committee resumed action on the bill Tuesday, and other committees were scheduled to take up other parts of the legislation later this week. The Senate has yet to take up the energy matter, but House leaders hope to pass a bill, possibly as early as next week.

A key debate on energy always has been how much emphasis should be placed on promoting energy production as opposed to energy conservation. Critics of the Republican-crafted House bill say it leans too heavily toward production, giving scant emphasis to improving efficiency.

Deal’s home state is the headquarters of Home Depot Inc., the country’s second-largest retailer and merchant of half the ceiling fans sold. The company, which has been concerned about states’ efforts to impose ceiling fan efficiency standards, lobbied the congressman for federal legislation, pre-empting the states.

Deal said action by individual states will result “in a warehouse full of fans” that can’t be sold — and higher fan prices. He contended the Energy Department still would be free to develop stronger requirements.

Todd Smith, a spokesman for Deal, said the congressman had been contacted by Home Depot and by several ceiling fan manufacturers seeking federal legislation that would preclude the states’ actions.

“The consumers are the ones that will benefit from this,” Smith said.

Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, said Home Depot had agreed in discussions with energy efficiency advocates for stronger ceiling fan standards — reflecting what states are considering — but then backed off.

Kent Knutson, vice president for government relations at Home Depot, denied that the company backed away, saying there had been a one-year agreement that expired at the end of 2004. Knutson acknowledged lobbying Deal and other lawmakers for a federal standard that would override state action.

“A federal standard is much better than state-by-state standards,” Knutson said in an interview.

Ceiling fans, when their generally inefficient lights are included, use about as much or more energy each year as refrigerators, dishwashers and window air conditioners, deLaski said.
Maryland has passed a standard that would reduce ceiling fan energy use by about a third. Among the states considering similar legislation are Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont. California is considering a fan efficiency labeling law, which also would be pre-empted, said deLaski.

Deal’s amendment does not require specific efficiency improvements, leaving any future standard up to the Energy Department. Manufacturers would not have to comply with a standard until 2009 or later if the DOE does not issue a standard by then.

Efficiency advocates said there’s no assurance the department will enact a standard anytime soon, although the amendment would prevent states from issuing their own standard. There are some appliance standards required by Congress in 1992 that have yet to be issued, they said.

Because of budget pressures the House bill may have fewer energy efficiency measures than the legislation that came close to being approved by Congress two years ago, energy efficiency advocates said. That bill was estimated to cut energy consumption by 1 percent, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a private group.

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