Appliances get their own recycled clunkers programs

Cash for clunkers ended this week — for cars.

But old energy-hogging refrigerators and freezers qualify for recycling and cash from more than 60 utilities across the nation. And the federal government is making money available to states so consumers could get rebates of $50 to $200 for new, more energy-efficient appliances later this year in a so-called "cash for appliances" program.

Combined, the appliance initiatives have a goal similar to the cash-for-clunker program for autos: They get less-efficient appliances off the nation's energy grid in favor of newer efficient ones.

The government's rebate program, in which the Department of Energy is providing states with $300 million approved earlier this year as part of President Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan, serves another goal similar to the cash-for-clunker program: It's designed to boost the economy.

"These rebates will help families make the transition to more efficient appliances, making purchases that will directly stimulate the economy and create jobs," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in announcing the rebate program earlier this summer.

Unlike cash for clunkers, consumers taking advantage of the rebate program wouldn't need to trade in their old refrigerators to get the benefit of buying a new one with an energy-star seal designating it as efficient.

A 'win-win situation'

Meanwhile, utilities in many states offer to pick up and recycle old refrigerators and freezers and give the customer a rebate ranging from $25 to $50. Such programs began on the West Coast in the last decade but more recently have been moving east.

"It's an excellent win-win-win situation," says John Hargrove of NV Energy in Nevada, which has had a refrigerator recycling program for five years. "There are environmental benefits, energy-efficiency benefits and benefits for customers who have a hard time dealing with that old refrigerator holding a six pack of water in the garage."

Old refrigerators and freezers are some of the biggest energy users in homes, and getting old ones out for energy-efficient models will save customers anywhere from $50 to $150 a year on electricity bills, says Steven Rosenstock, manager for energy solutions at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents 70% of the investor-owned utilities in the United States.

In five years, NV Energy in Nevada has picked up 50,000 refrigerators, giving $30 to customers in Nevada and California who have turned in their working, but old appliances. The company hopes to boost the program to 20,000 appliances a year and help the utility reach its goal of producing a state-ordered 25% of its electricity through renewable or energy-efficiency sources by 2025, Hargrove says.

In Michigan, where 2008 energy legislation required utilities to cut electricity production by 5% a year, the program is exceeding expectations.

DTE Energy, parent company of Detroit Edison which serves 2.2 million electric customers in Detroit and its suburbs, collected more than 3,300 appliances since starting the recycling program at the end of June. It offers $50 per refrigerator or freezer and $20 for old window air-conditioner units.

"Today's appliances consume three times less than old appliances," says Steven Kurmas, president of Detroit Edison. "We're hoping to get rid of 30,000 by 2011."

New Jersey's Clean Energy program, which includes energy-efficiency programs for eight utilities in the state, started its program at the end of July and has picked up 815 appliances with another 754 scheduled to be picked up. It hopes to recycle 20,000 refrigerators and freezers in its first year.

"By providing an incentive of $30 and removing (the appliance), we figured we could take a lot of demand out of the system," says Tim O'Donovan with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

'Environmental time bombs'

At Nebraska Public Power District, Ken Curry says the utility hopes to defer construction of new power plants with programs such as refrigerator recycling, which already has picked up 1,400 appliances since starting this spring.

"We're estimating that the refrigerators we're picking up have eight years remaining life, and by getting them off the grid, we're saving 19 million kilowatt hours over the life of those units," he says. "And if our customers are saving money on their electric bills … they can upgrade to a better brand. A lot of our customers can relate to that."

Jaco Environmental is a Seattle-based company that has been picking up and recycling refrigerators for 20 years, first for retailers and now for utilities. It runs recycling programs for 61 utilities in 26 states.

Money from the stimulus bill is a boon for business, says Michael Dunham, director of energy and environmental programs for Jaco.

Jaco recycles 95% of the refrigerator, including chlorofluorocarbons, which are destroyed at a waste-to-energy incinerator. The steel is used in rebar to reinforce roadways, and the plastic goes into everything from laptop computers and cellphones.

"These refrigerators are environmental time bombs," Dunham says. "But this is all recycled and made into new products."

Gray writes for the Detroit Free Press