ENERGY EFFICIENCY

Neb. politicians tee off on obscure DOE standards for golf carts

A little-known push by the U.S. Department of Energy to trim golf carts' energy use has hit the skids in Congress, as a rare domestic manufacturer of battery chargers persuaded its congressman to bring the issue all the way to the floor of the House.

During debate last week on DOE spending for next year, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) successfully inserted an amendment to pull funding from a little-known rulemaking on the devices used to recharge electric golf carts.

It passed in a matter of minutes with little dissent, even though Democrats resisted similar amendments, including one to stop the enforcement of new efficiency standards for light bulbs.

Rep. Pete Visclosky of Indiana, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that writes DOE's budget, said he doesn't like using spending bills to block individual rules, but he wasn't going to stand in Fortenberry's way. It can't hurt to give DOE a "gentle reminder" to resolve the dispute, Visclosky said on the House floor just before the vote.

"I understand the frustration that the Department of Energy is capable of causing from time to time," he added.

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Making chargers more efficient would save hundreds of dollars over the life of a golf cart, according to DOE, which also plans to set efficiency standards for the devices that recharge cellphones, laptop computers and a variety of other household products (Greenwire, March 9).

But the idea didn't sit well with Lincoln, Neb.-based Lester Electrical, which has made golf cart chargers since it opened in 1963. The company has suggested it may send its manufacturing abroad if DOE stands by its position.

Fortenberry, whose district includes Lincoln and most of eastern Nebraska, took up the cause and said on the House floor that the jobs of more than 100 of his constituents are at stake. He followed up his success Friday by introducing a stand-alone bill (H.R. 5935) to stop DOE from finalizing the standards.

Jason Smith, the vice president of economic development at the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, said Lester Electrical has managed to remain a large employer in the Nebraska capital even as some of its fellow manufacturers have closed. The company, which is headquartered at a factory near the Lincoln rail yard, had 235 employees at the end of 2010 after two rounds of layoffs that cut about 75 jobs.

"Lincoln has historically had a high number of specialty electronics manufacturers, and it goes way back," Smith said. "Lester is one of the ones that's still left, that has made it through the offshoring storm."

An expert on the efficiency standards at Lester Electrical, which was the only domestic manufacturer covered by DOE's rules, was out of the office and could not be reached yesterday. But in comments filed with DOE, the company says golf carts shouldn't be subject to rules for "consumer products" because about 90 percent of them are sold to businesses rather than individual buyers.

DOE says in its proposal that enough people buy golf carts for personal use that it should count as a consumer product.

But the agency has said it's sensitive to the pressures on Lester Electrical, which is a relic in an age when almost all battery chargers are made overseas.

Most of the rules for battery chargers will barely affect American jobs, because the devices are being made in Southeast Asia and other places with cheaper labor. But in the case of Lester, new rules could sting U.S. workers by sending manufacturing overseas, said Chris Beutler, the Democratic mayor of Lincoln, as the agency came closer to a proposal.

"At the proposed efficiency levels, domestic golf car manufacturers will face a difficult decision on whether to attempt to manufacture more efficient battery chargers in-house and try to compete with a greater level of vertical integration than their competitors, move production to lower-wage regions abroad, or source their battery charger manufacturing," DOE said in its proposal, adding that it believes "one of the latter two strategies would be more likely for domestic golf car manufacturers."

Green groups criticized Fortenberry's bill, saying it set a dangerous precedent. In a blog post, the Natural Resources Defense Council said politicians shouldn't try to influence standards that are supposed to be based on the most efficient technology.

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