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Biden administration unveils new efficiency standards for home furnaces

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In an effort to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change, the Department of Energy (DOE) proposed new energy-efficiency standards Monday for residential gas furnaces. The rule, if finalized, would help limit the release of carbon dioxide and methane.

The new standard would require new furnaces to convert 95% of the gas they burn into heat. (Older models may have a conversion rate as low as 56%.) DOE estimates that this efficiency improvement, and the resulting lower gas bills, would save consumers $1.9 billion annually — or $500 over the lifetime of each new furnace. Over 30 years, the new standard would reduce carbon emissions by 373 million metric tons and methane emissions by 5.1 million tons. That’s the equivalent of one year’s emissions for 61 million American homes. It would also reduce conventional air pollution from chimneys that contributes to respiratory illnesses.

“By updating energy standards for many carbon-emitting appliances, such as home furnaces, the Biden Administration is working to save consumers money,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a statement accompanying the proposed rule’s publication. “These efficiency measures not only reduce carbon and methane emissions, but also provide huge material benefits to American households in the form of cleaner air, modernized technology, and cheaper energy.”

Gas furnaces, used for heating and hot water, account for roughly 15% of annual U.S. residential energy use, according to DOE.

The rule is proposed to take effect in 2029, and it would effectively require that only “condensing furnaces,” which capture excess heat from the furnace’s exhaust gases, are sold. (Canada has already required condensing furnaces for residential heating for over a decade.)

Close-up of flames on a natural gas, fossil fuel-driven furnace burner.
Close-up of flames on a natural gas furnace burner in the HVAC system of a suburban home in San Ramon, Calif., Dec. 29, 2019. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Climate activists praised the proposal, especially in light of the recent increase in gas prices stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“At a time when global gas markets are in turmoil, this is a good step to help protect millions of families against price spikes that can send bills through the roof,” Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said in a statement.

“Home heating bills strain the budgets of many households, especially those with low incomes, yet we’re still installing brand-new furnace models that waste a lot of the heat. The Biden administration is right to phase out the most inefficient models,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, in the same statement. “The new standard would reduce needless costs and greenhouse gas emissions.”

The gas industry, however, is opposed. “This move will place an undue burden on customers,” the American Gas Association (AGA) said a statement.

“Many older homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, cannot accommodate the expensive venting requirements for a condensing furnace,” the AGA said. “These customers would be forced to switch to an electric furnace.”

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm looks on during a news conference at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve site at Bayou Choctaw, Louisiana, U.S. May 24, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm during a news conference at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve site at Bayou Choctaw, La., May 24, 2022. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Electric furnaces, according to DOE, are more expensive than gas furnaces. Of course, because they don’t burn gas, a switch to electric heating would be bad news for the gas industry.

The AGA claims that currently, because most electricity is generated from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, the lower efficiency of electric furnaces actually means they have a larger carbon footprint. However, if the U.S. electricity sector switches entirely to clean sources such as wind and solar energy, electric furnaces would ultimately produce less conventional pollution and climate pollution than gas furnaces.

“AGA will thoroughly examine every aspect of this proposed rule, and if it is another attempt to put the natural gas industry out of business, we will vigorously object,” said AGA President and CEO Karen Harbert.

Congressional Republican leaders and trade associations for manufacturing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.