Energy Policy

Efficiency group's Callahan talks White House push to eliminate energy savings programs

The usually bipartisan and noncontroversial efficiency sector has faced new pressure this month following the release of President Trump's proposed budget and the freezing of several efficiency rules and procedures by the administration. During today's OnPoint, Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, explains how her industry is responding to these moves and discusses the new political climate for energy and environment issues.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. Kateri, it's great to have you back on the show.

Kateri Callahan: It's so nice to be here again, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Nice to see you. So, Kateri, the efficiency space has long been bipartisan and relatively uncontroversial. Yet this year, we are seeing movement by the Trump administration to do away with some long-standing programs and rules that relate to efficiency, innovation, and climate change more broadly. So, let's start with Energy Star. President Trump, according to his budget proposal, would like to see the program eliminated. Do you believe that Energy Star has enough support in Congress to not move forward with the president's plan?

Kateri Callahan: I believe it does, Monica, and it's not just that there's support in the Congress, though there has been bipartisan support since it was created in 1992. Remember, this was a George H.W. Bush program, and it's been around now for 25 years, a body of information on what it's delivered to our economy, to consumers, to businesses, to innovation. And people up on the Hill get that, and they've been steady state funding it for as long as I've been in the efficiency business, for about 14 years.

But we are not going to take anything for granted, so we have mounted a very, very significant advocacy campaign, and fortunately, there's so much groundswell of support out in the public for this, that I think we will definitely win the day. We did a callout to our E Advocates, which are our online grass-roots advocacy network, last week. And within a couple of days, we generated 5,500 — oh no, excuse me, it's up to 6,300 — letters to the Congress. We have sent an appeal out to the Energy Star partners — there are over 18,000 companies, utilities, schools, retailers that participate in the program, asking them to sign letters of support for funding and keeping the program going. We're still collecting those signatures, but we've already got almost 700 of those partners signed on to letters to go up to the Hill and to the administration, saying, "This is a program we should keep."

So, I think we're going to be able to keep that program rolling forward as we should, but again, we're not — we can't take anything for granted at this moment in time. And you asked about support on the Hill. We do have several members of Congress who are circulating letters, trying to get other members of Congress to sign letters of support to the president and to Administrator Pruitt.

Monica Trauzzi: So, another big cut in the budget outline is that DOE targeting offices that focus on efficiency and renewables. What could scaling back on the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy mean for innovation in this space? And could you argue that a lot of the hard work has already been done, so that it's not necessary to continue pouring all of this money into that office?

Kateri Callahan: Right. Well, I think not putting money in there is really what I've been calling "penny-wise and pound-foolish." We have again, a long-standing history of those programs that are over at DOE. Some of them — the Weatherization Assistance Program, that provides funding to do energy efficiency upgrades to low-income families' homes, that's been in place since 1976, since Gerald Ford. We've weatherized 7 million homes. People who are fortunate enough to have benefited from that program are saving about $450 a year on their energy bills. That may not be a lot to high-income or even middle-income people, but low-income people, it's a significant part of their budget.

So, I think that that's — I'm just mentioning one of the programs. The Appliance and Equipment Standards Program — yeah, we've done a lot of work there. Under the Obama administration, we caught up and in some instances, even went ahead of court orders and mandates to move forward on updating appliance standards. That program is delivering significant value to consumers in terms — and businesses — in terms of reduced energy bills. But if you don't continue to keep those standards updated on a regular basis, you're not going to be able to continue to get the efficiency benefits.

So yes, we've come a long, long way. Ninety percent of the products in our homes are covered by Appliance and Equipment Standards — 60 percent in businesses, 30 percent in manufacturing. But if we stop now, there's no more forward progress. There's no drive of innovation and investment by the private sector in making those products better. I think the saddest part of it, frankly, is that there's the collateral damage to not just the efficiency of the products, Monica, but the performance of the products and the available of type.

So, one of the knocks against Appliance and Equipment Standards, for example, has been that you will limit consumers' choice, and you won't get as good a product. Well, that's just patently wrong. Think about a refrigerator — they use 75 percent less energy today than they did 20 years ago. They last longer and they're better, and they perform better. So, it's — I don't see a good rationale for saying, "OK, we've done enough. We shouldn't do more." We'll fall behind the rest of the world, and that is not what I think this administration, and certainly this Congress, wants to see happen.

Monica Trauzzi: You've been working on these issues for a long time — you said 14 years. Did you ever think there was a possibility that on some of these topics, we would be revisiting conversations on things like energy and climate?

Kateri Callahan: Well, I think yes. So, we're always going to be revisiting those or continuing that conversation, because the world's not static. I think that the — for me, the difference here is that it appears — and we don't know this — that energy efficiency is caught up in this notion of, "Well, we have to end all of the work we're doing on climate." We don't do energy efficiency for climate alone. Some people, that's the motivating factor for more. It's the economic development. It's the global competitiveness. It's the saving on energy bills, doing more with less, so we put money more productively back into our economy.

So, I think that it's a shame if we only look at efficiency through a climate or a greenhouse gas lens. The savings there — and you know this as well as I do — have been enormous. But if we look at it through an economic lens and look at what it's delivered to our country, yeah, we're in a golden day with energy use in our nation right now. We've decoupled the growth in energy from growth in our economy.

Last year, in 2015, we actually reduced overall energy consumption while we still improved our economic output by 1.6 percent. You and I, and all the homeowners around the world — or, excuse me, around the United States — have the lowest percentage of our budget — monthly budget — going to energy bills that we've ever recorded in the history of this country. You have to go back to 1959 to see a smaller percentage of our overall budget going towards energy bills. So, we have this wonderful era that we've helped to create by making ourselves more energy efficient, and I don't know why we'd want to stop that track of progress.

Monica Trauzzi: So, where do you think Republicans are right now? I know that you're in constant contact with folks on the Hill. What are the conversations like when you talk to members broadly on these issues and what they might do this year?

Kateri Callahan: So, we brought in a lot of our companies — we have over 125 companies that participate in the alliance — and a month ago, we had a congressional education day, and we focused on Republican offices, and we focused on appropriators and the authorizing committee folks. We visited with 32 offices in representing 26 different states and some of the key appropriations committee folks. And I don't see an erosion in the support at all for energy efficiency programs that are being done by the federal government.

They get it. Support for work that the national lab is doing. Support for the state energy programs where the federal government provides funding and technical assistance to states to help them drive energy efficiency and clean energy forward. It's there. What we hear is that there may be haircuts. Those, from what I'm hearing, may be more a broad brush like we've seen with sequestration in the past, trying to find the funding that the president wants to beef up the military side. And I just don't — I don't see support, or haven't seen it yet, real strong support, for doing away with these programs. Again, most of the programs that are being targeted were started under Republican presidents. They have long-standing histories of 20, 25, 40 years, and there's a track record there of success that people just can't ignore.

Monica Trauzzi: Are your member organizations worried?

Kateri Callahan: I don't know if "worried" is the correct word at this point in time. I would say it's more they are paying attention, and they are putting forward and working with us to mount a defense and an education program that'll keep us from being worried, that'll keep us knowing that — having confidence that the government is going to stand with the private sector in these important public-private partnerships and this action to make us more energy productive, so therefore, more globally competitive.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We're going to end it right there. Thank you so much for coming up on the show.

Kateri Callahan: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Nice to see you.

Kateri Callahan: I appreciate it.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow. That was great. Thank you.

[End of Audio]



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