There is a great debate amongst utilities about how to get customers, large and small, to cut peak load. There are carrot approaches, such as rebates, and then there are sticks, like mandatory commercial critical peak pricing. Another approach, which is more long-term and not discussed as often, is increasing appliance and equipment standards for the biggest electricity hogs in homes and businesses.

The appliance standards currently in place will save the U.S. more than 200 quads and $1.1 trillion by 2035, according to a new study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, The Efficiency Boom: Cashing In on Savings From Appliance Standards.

It is a difficult sell to tell people that despite rising electricity costs and rolling blackouts, things could be a whole lot worse. But that is the case, especially with standards. The more efficient products will save 240 gigawatts in peak demand in 2035. Another 67 GW, or 6 percent of the total U.S. generating capacity for 2035, could also be offset by new standards being implemented in the coming years.

The need to cut peak has utilities looking at all sorts of consumer-facing programs, from industrial demand response down to residential efficiency. But many of these programs relay on humans -- either to answer the phone and start a demand response program, or adjust an air conditioner on the hottest days of summer.

All of that will still need to happen, but taking humans out of the equation should be a focus for legislators. The Obama administration has been bullish on fuel economy standards, and appliance standards have been raised during the president's tenure, but more could be done.

The study by ACEEE found that there were 10 products that could benefit the most from standards across residential and commercial sectors. Residential electric water heaters topped the list, with incandescent reflector lamps and residential air handlers coming in next.

“Our research found that a combination of updates for existing standards and first-time standards for products like computers, TV set-top boxes and streetlights would add to the track record of big energy, economic and environmental benefits achieved by standards,” said Amanda Lowenberger, lead report author and senior research analyst at ACEEE.

Communicating the need for higher standards and their importance is difficult if it means a higher price. But many utilities are offsetting the price for some upgrades. General Electric’s GeoSpring hybrid water heater saves up to $325 per year, but some utilities are offering up to $1000 in rebates for customers. Many of the rebates are in the $300 to $500 range, which pays for a large fraction of the cost of the EnergySTAR-rated hot water heater. 

With many of the rebates, the water heater could pay for itself in less than three years. GE is hoping that its range of products, from turbines to toasters, can be an asset to utilities as they make strategic decisions on rebates and efficiency programs. “We can help utilities touch the consumer,” said Jonathan Thompson, Utility Sales Leader for Home Energy Solutions at General Electric. “It’s going to be preventative maintenance that is now taking over the home energy conversation.”

The sell for smart appliances won't be that your $1,400 washing machine can turn itself off or on at midnight and save you 50 cents -- it will be that the high-end appliance will text you if it isn't performing at optimal levels, or will know what kind of clothes you put into it. (LG's robot vacuum can also feed the dog, for instance.) And with the right standards, even the lowest-priced items could be grid-connected. 

Hot water heaters and HVAC are the biggest energy hogs in the house, but increasing plug loads means that coming standards for computers, set-top boxes and televisions will have a significant impact down the road. National standards for set-top boxes that will go into effect in 2012 will save 15 terawatt-hours by 2035.

Other standards in commercial and industrial applications also have huge savings potential, including minimum efficiencies for distribution transformers and electric motors, each of which will save more than 20 TWh.

The savings in most cases are also an easier sell than something more esoteric, like smart grid. While a smarter grid will deliver significant economic and environmental benefits compared to doing nothing, the cost of energy will still rise over time. With most appliances, however, the standards will not significantly increase the cost. There are a few exceptions, such as electric hot water heaters and boilers, which is why rebates are so important for items like those.

“There’s no question that standards have made a significant contribution to lowering home utility bills,” Mel Hall-Crawford, Energy Projects Director for the Consumer Federation of America, said in a statement. “And, there are more savings to be gained through future standards.”