Energy Star and its shortfalls

Gasoline powered alarm clock

While skimming through the NY Times last Friday I read their article titled, "EnergyStar Program Audit Finds Fraud Vulnerability" which chronicled the experience of the Government Accountability Office (basically a congressional watchdog) and their ability to easily get Energy Star ratings on ridiculous products.  One of the products was a "gasoline-powered alarm clock" and an "air purifier" that was a electric heater with a  duster taped to the top of it. Both of these gained the Energy Star label.

The GAO and other audits have uncovered the following issues about EnergyStar:

  • Approval for products that don't exist
  • Ease of gaining the label and using it on other products
  • Energy efficiency claims not thoroughly followed through
  • EnergyStar claims not accurate for many products
  • Independent testing required for only a few types of products

The Times article states:

The Energy Department has promised to set up a system of independent verification for all products. Last week, it said it would begin testing refrigerators, freezers, clothes washers, dishwashers, water heaters and room air-conditioners. In October 2008, Consumer Reports magazine reported it had tested refrigerators built by LG of South Korea and found that they were not nearly as efficient as the maker claimed. LG eventually agreed to modify the machines already sold to reduce electricity consumption and to reimburse customers. Last week, the Energy Department said it had found a Samsung refrigerator that did not comply.

The Energy Department does spot check some items with the EnergyStar logo, but mostly the ones that do not use much power in the first place. The department recently announced that several models of compact fluorescent lamps would have to remove the EnergyStar logo because they were not durable enough. It has conducted spot checks on regulated appliances that do not carry the logo and determined that some cannot be legally sold because they do not meet minimum efficiency standards.

The audit to be released Friday did not set out to test any products but focused solely on testing the certification process by submitting bogus products.

But some in the "energy conservation" community feel that EnergyStar is being unfairly targeted.  Tom Harrison who has the excellent blog and is the CTO of wrote the post, "Stop Picking on Energy Star..." saying:

Does it have anything to do with the fact that, in 2003, a certain presidential administration reduced funding for Energy Star by about 30%?.  To be sure, our current administration should have done something to prevent this. Well, in November last year, the current administration actually did: The EPA found that Energy Star would be stronger with more rigorous qualification testing (pdf).

And he closed with:

An agreed upon, resonant, broadly known brand standard in energy efficiency is worth fighting for, not picking on. I know old habits die hard. But perhaps it's time to admit that governments are fallible and that we should occasionally give our public servants a little credit for doing something right.

But I know what you really want to know; which is, "What do you think Chris?"

I always love when inefficiencies are brought to light and this is a prime example of a government program that can be greatly improved upon.  While I agree with Tom that Energy Star is a great program I'm also a little disheartened to learn how easy it is to get the Energy Star label.  Shouldn't it be something that manufacturers have to strive for as opposed to just building a product using 21st century technology (or in some cases not even having a product at all)?  If all products had the Energy Star label, what would be the point?  Shouldn't the program only recognize the "best of the best" so consumers know they are getting the most efficient product out there?  I liked what the Nature Conservancy's blog post on the topic had to say:

If the government really wanted to fix the Energy Star label, it would apply a single standard across an entire appliance sector and use a bronze, silver, gold, platinum, titanium, kryptonite-type rating system to identify the most efficient types of appliances. So, the side-by-side fridge could still be Energy Star rated, but at a “bronze” level and a more efficient standard fridge could qualify for the higher “gold” standard.

Which would be like the LEED rating for "green" buildings (which has its own set of problems but at least there is a hierarchial rating).

The Energy Star program is a great resource and brings energy efficiency to the spotlight for consumers, but it isn't the "do-all end-all" for product energy efficiency.  What's the best way to ensure you are getting the most energy efficient product?  Read up on the basics of energy (like what is a kWh?) and DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH!  While Energy Star is a great tool to help you make energy efficient purchasing decisions, your brain is a better one.

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The government doesn't need to spend large amounts of money verifying the claimed energy efficiency of products submitted for energy star approval. It just needs to make the CEOs (or some senior vice-president) sign under penalty of perjury that the claims are accurate. Then test a random sample, and jail any CEOs who lied. While I like you bronze/silver/gold system ... I think the stickers that are already in use on refrigerators showing annual running costs are the way to go. The downside of a bronze/silver/gold system is that it is impossible to see when an appliance just scraped into the "gold" category by the thinnest of margins. I'd rather see a number - with as many significant figures as makes sense - than broad categories.

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