By Matthew Power. The DOE (directed by the Bush administration) has gained the political thumbs up it needs to roll back seasonal energy-efficiency ratings (SEER) on new central air conditioners and heat pumps. But the decision, like the 2001 election, has left deep divisions. The Natural Resources Defense Council has sued the DOE for violating federal energy law. Even the embattled EPA backed higher standards on this issue.

The lines in this battle, however, have not neatly followed traditional Republican-Democrat boundaries. In fact, some of the key players in keeping the Bush plan on track were democrats. For example, Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa), sponsored an amendment to the Senate energy bill (S.517) that decreased the efficiency requirement. And New York democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer both voted in favor. Big HVAC manufacturers create a lot of jobs in their states.

What does this decision mean for residential home builders, for consumers, for the environment?

NAHB President Gary Garczynski, a builder/developer from Woodbridge, Va., felt strongly enough about the decision to issue a statement of his own: "By revising air-conditioner standards from a SEER of 13 to 12," he says, "we can improve residential energy efficiency without impacting housing affordability."

That rhetoric echoes the response of the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), an industry-sponsored lobbying group, whose president, William G. Sutton, calls the decision a "win-win" for consumers, because "a higher national standard would have discouraged purchase of this equipment that can save lives during killer heat waves."

But those are fighting words. Even among manufacturers, the SEER rollback was no slam dunk. Goodman, one of the nation's biggest HVAC companies (maker of Amana and other brands), favored the higher 13 SEER standard, as did several others.

Bill Prindle, deputy director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), in Washington, says that the industry's concern for low-income purchasers is a smoke screen; a way to cover the real issue behind the rhetoric--manufacturer profits.

"Back when the standard was raised to 10 SEER, we used census data to show that there was hardly a blip in the number of unit shipments. What this is really about is the fact that manufacturers use the SEER rating as a baseline. Then they sell higher-rated units at a premium. The lower the baseline, the higher the markup on better units," notes Prindle.

From a builder's point of view, Prindle continues, the higher rating probably would not have raised prices. In fact, builders will now have to pay more than they would have for "premium" units. "Manufacturers will respond to the market," he says. "If they need to build an affordable 13 SEER unit, they will figure out how."

But won't any air-conditioner price hike hurt the poorest home buyers?

"If you think about it, the lowest- income people can never afford a house. They rent their homes," says Prindle. "The landlord is the one who buys the system, and if it is more efficient, the tenants would pay less for electricity."

Finally, critics of the rollback point out, the additional energy required to run lower efficiency air conditioning in coming years will take an immense toll on local infrastructure, along with causing more pollution.

"The DOE's analysis doesn't take into effect increased peak demands," notes Prindle. "They say electricity will get cheaper, but it is already getting more expensive in many regions."

The ACEEE estimates that an additional 48 power plants will be needed by 2020, just to meet the additional demand created by 12 SEER versus 13 SEER units.

"In Florida, 12 SEER is already pretty much standard," Prindle adds. "But as energy demands increase, added costs for new infrastructure will be paid by us all."