- - Sunday, October 27, 2013

Have you ever gone to the kitchen in the middle of the night without turning on the lights, looked at your microwave’s digital clock and said, “Man, that is bright. How much energy does that thing use anyway?”

If so, you were either hung over or an employee of the Department of Energy.

In reality, that clock uses hardly any energy at all — an average of 4.5 watts on the over-the-range models and less for the countertop ones. That minuscule consumption, though, is more than enough to spur an army of regulators — seemingly unimpeded by budgets or common sense — into action.

In June, the Energy Department issued a regulation titled “Energy Conservation Program: Energy Conservation Standards for Standby Mode and Off Mode for Microwave Ovens.” Yet another in a long list of rules to save you from your appliances, this one will help you out of that dime-a-week financial hole your clock is digging every hour of every day. At least, every hour when you aren’t using the microwave, because this rule looks only at the microwave’s energy consumption when you don’t use it.

Let’s examine those savings. The big money is in the over-the-range category, where the new 2.2-watt standard will deliver life-cycle cost savings of $12 ($19 savings in electricity minus $7 for the increased cost of manufacturing the oven). Your guardian angels at the Energy Department determined that the average life span of a microwave oven is about 10 years, so you can now contemplate pocketing an additional $1.20 per year to spend on whatever you want — so long as it isn’t something like a vacuum fluorescent display for your microwave.

It seems the vacuum fluorescent displays (and their up to 8 watts of power consumption) are the SUVs of the digital display world: A lot of people like them, but the department thinks those people are wastrels and that manufacturers shouldn’t be allowed to sell things that wastrels want.

The alternatives to vacuum fluorescent displays are liquid crystal displays, which must be backlit to be readable in dim light, and light-emitting diodes. Some in the industry (those who have to sell things customers actually want) pleaded that vacuum fluorescent displays were often easier to read and stood up better to the high heat and humidity found 20 inches above boiling water and frying food.

Employing eyeballs, light meters and environmental chambers, the energy investigators determined: a) the backlit liquid crystal displays looked just as good as the vacuum fluorescent displays; and b) the degradation in brightness was the same for all display types after a full 10 days in the environmental chamber.

The department did note, almost as an afterthought, that half of the liquid crystal display models they tested failed completely after less than 10 days in the heat and humidity. However, they simply ignored that little hiccup.

In short, to save customers $1.20 per year, Department of Energy standards push manufacturers toward a technology that can render half of their customers’ clocks useless within a week or so — a cost the department totally ignores. Well, what sort of savings sense should people expect from a government that last year added more than $10,000 to the national debt for every household in America?

The cherry on top of this insanity sundae is the supposed climate benefit of the rule. In a sketchy chain of calculations camouflaged by fancy computer analysis (a perfect example of garbage-in-garbage-out), the Environmental Protection Agency determined that a ton of carbon dioxide does $41.10 worth of damage. Even if that number were right, this forced shift of microwave-oven displays cuts the damage by 50 cents per year per oven. Not much of an issue in this case, but the now-enshrined $41.10 figure is going to create significant regulatory costs for televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, water heaters, furnaces, air conditioners, dryers, cars, trucks, power-plant applications, export-terminal permits, building standards, light bulbs and virtually every other aspect of economic activity.

From the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 through the Energy Independence and Security Acts of 2005 and 2007 to the currently proposed Shaheen-Portman Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, Washington puts more faith in bureaucrats than in consumers and the businesses that serve them. Consumers do care about energy efficiency, but they care about a lot of other things, too.

Bureaucrats can ignore reliability, convenience, safety and style, but manufacturers can’t, because consumers don’t. That’s why Washington needs to stay out of the kitchen.

David Kreutzer is the research fellow in energy economics and climate change at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).