WASHINGTON - Gas guzzlers could become relics of the past and farmers may rival oil companies in producing motor fuels under a new energy law. Consumers also will save electricity - and money - from more efficient refrigerators, furnaces and dishwashers.
There will be improved efficiency labeling on TVs and computers. And the office building of the future may need less energy and rely more on wind, solar or biomass, becoming zero emitters of greenhouse gases.
That's the future outlined by some energy experts as a result of new legislation President Bush signed on Wednesday.
Automakers now will be required to achieve an industrywide average fuel efficiency for cars, SUVs and small trucks of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40 percent jump and the first increase in the federal requirement in 32 years.
The bill also stands to change the fuel motorists will use to power those cars, requiring a sixfold increase in the use of ethanol instead of gasoline. And it revs up the push for efficiency on everything from light bulbs and home furnaces to new commercial buildings.
Bush said these measures are "a major step toward reducing our dependence on oil" and addressing global warming.
"Taken together, all these measures will help us improve our environment," Bush said at an Energy Department signing ceremony, adding that they "could reduce projected carbon dioxide emissions by billions of metric tons." Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the leading greenhouse gas, trapping the sun's heat in the atmosphere.
"We think it's the most significant energy saving law ever," said Lowell Ungar, policy director at the Alliance to Save Energy, a private advocacy group.
The availability of more fuel-efficient vehicles is expected to save 1.1 million barrels of oil a day and save consumers $700 to $1,000 a year in fuel costs, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, that was widely cited during congressional debate on the bill.
But second to that, the simple light bulb will likely bring the biggest energy saving to consumers.
The law calls for the phaseout, beginning in 2012, of the inefficient incandescent bulb that has been in use since the days of Thomas Edison. By 2014 these bulbs "will be virtually obsolete," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who authored the lighting provision in the bill.
While the law will not dictate specific technology, the 100-watt bulb will have to be replaced, for example, by one that provides the same amount of light for 72 watts, with additional improvements required by 2020.
"It's a big deal," Bingaman said in an interview. "These [new] standards will improve lighting efficiency by 70 percent by 2020." That's an electricity saving equal to shutting down 24 coal-burning power plants, and saving consumers $6 billion for electricity, Bingaman estimates.
The law also requires new energy efficiency standards for refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers and clothes washers, and requires improved energy-use labeling on light bulbs, televisions, computer monitors and other electronic products.
Homeowners may also find more efficient natural gas furnaces on the market. The bill makes clear that the Energy Department can issue more stringent efficiency requirements for furnaces in colder regions of the country than they do nationwide. It requires the department to move faster to issue appliance standards.
Ungar said a new program to foster more energy-efficient commercial buildings "is potentially huge" since such buildings account for much of the energy used today. But he cautioned that while the law authorizes programs to spur construction of so-called green buildings, Congress must still come up with money to fund the program.
Carlos Riva, president of Verenium Corp., a pioneer in developing cellulosic ethanol, says the new ethanol mandate will bring the investments needed to dramatically expand ethanol use.
"We know the science and the process technology. The challenge is scaling it up to a point where it's competitive," Riva said in an interview. He predicted that within 15 years 20 percent of fuel people put into their cars will be alternative fuels such as ethanol.
"There will be more consumer demand for flex fuel vehicles," he said, referring to cars that can run on 85 percent ethanol blends. Verenium plans soon to finish construction of a demonstration ethanol plant and has plans for a commercial-scale plant within four years. Cellulosic ethanol is derived from materials such as prairie grass and wood chips.
Auto company engineers already have begun work to find ways to meet the new fuel economy standard. While the 35 mpg requirement won't go into effect for 13 years, the Transportation Department could begin ratcheting up mileage requirements as early as the 2011 car models. Eventually, some vehicles will have to exceed the 35 mpg, while others - some SUVs, for example - may fall short as long as the overall fleet average is 35 mpg, about 10 mpg higher than today's total fleet average.
Consumers are likely to see more advanced gas-electric hybrid vehicles, clean-diesel powered SUVs and small trucks, and more cars running on ethanol blends, according to auto company executives. Vehicles are expected to be lighter, but not necessarily smaller, with more sophisticated engine and transmission technologies aimed at saving fuel.