Hold onto your wallet — that is, if you can find it in the smog.

  The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has decided on a new energy-efficiency standard for commercial and high-rise residential buildings that would actually result in less energy efficiency and be bad for consumers, bad for businesses, and bad for our air quality.

In fact, an October 1997 study sponsored by the Gas Research Institute estimates that for new retail and office buildings, the proposed standard would increase national energy costs by 11% and increase national energy, equipment, and envelope expenditures by 3%, compared to the previously proposed standard.

Even supporters of the standard, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, have conceded that its projected energy savings are small and “may actually be negative.” In fact, the NRDC writes, “There is no solid data showing whether the standard saves any money at all.”

The standard is ASHRAE 90.1, which specifies minimum efficiencies for space and water heating equipment, and helps determine the design of the building. Unfortunately, ASHRAE 90.1 is based on flawed policy and shaky assumptions.

The policy is flawed because this standard penalizes natural gas, the clean-burning, domestically abundant fuel that President Clinton and many other public policy makers believe will be a significant solution to our growing energy needs and environmental concerns.

In fact, the President recently signed an executive order, “Greening the Government,” that establishes a new energy efficiency policy for federal buildings — one that will promote the efficiency and environmental advantages of natural gas over electricity.

What the president’s order recognizes, which ASHRAE’s 90.1 standard does not, is that the direct use of natural gas is much more environmentally friendly than converting coal into electricity, which is how most of this nation’s electricity is generated. That is because natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel.

Used directly, it is also the most efficient. Electricity loses more than 70% of its useable energy in its journey from the minemouth — through the conversion process — to its final destination at the electric outlet. By contrast, natural gas loses only about 10% of its useable energy from the wellhead to the burner tip.

The ironic result is that, while public policymakers are developing sound energy policy for federal buildings, ASHRAE is developing a shortsighted, incomplete and inefficient energy standard for commercial and high-rise residential buildings!

The assumptions are shaky because ASHRAE based part of its standard on a formula that artificially inflates the cost of natural gas. This will promote the use of heating technologies that consume as much as two or three times the amount of energy as natural gas consumes, and that generate more than twice the air pollution.

To give one example, ASHRAE 90.1 will increase the cost of purchasing a natural gas water heater by about 10 percent, which will put it at a competitive disadvantage even though it is cleaner burning and costs less to operate than its electric counterpart.

To say the least, it is disconcerting that ASHRAE would push an energy efficiency standard that is biased against natural gas when national public policy makers are increasingly recognizing the value of natural gas as one solution to a cleaner environment.

In terms of saving energy, cutting costs and improving our environment, ASHRAE 90.1 is a badly designed standard.