Energy Star Skewered by Congressional Audit

A covert investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that Energy Star, the EPA’s 18-year-old energy efficiency program, will put its seal of approval on just about anything — as long as the necessary paperwork is filled out.

A phony “gasoline powered alarm clock” submitted by investigators was approved as Energy Star compliant, along with a “room air cleaner” that an accompanying photo showed was actually a space heater with a feather duster glued to the top. In one case, Energy Star certified a non-existent computer monitor a mere 30 minutes after the GAO submitted paperwork.

The GAO concluded that “Energy Star is for the most part a self-certification program vulnerable to fraud and abuse.” See the full report here.

Self-certified, yes, but still good

Officials from the EPA and the Department of Energy, which jointly run the program, admitted Energy Star is mostly self-certified, but argued that after-market tests and self-policing by market competitors ensured a certain level of honesty in labeling.

Nonetheless, the EPA vowed to institute new third-party verification procedures and a slate of new testing to ensure compliance in a long, defensive press release issued March 19, less than a week before a scathing New York Times article on the report appeared. The GAO investigation was not scheduled to be made public until the end of the month.

The Energy Star label is on 40,000 products.

Energy Star, or whatever

A report by the EPA’s Inspector General last year exposed other weaknesses in the Energy Star program. For instance, while all or nearly all of the computer monitors tested for the report met or exceeded Energy Star standards, 80 percent of monitors without the label did also. Sixty percent of non-Energy Star DVD players and 40 percent of printers also were compliant.

That report concluded that the “Energy Star label does not necessarily assure consumers superior energy savings over products that are not labeled Energy Star.” The report recommended an enhanced testing program — exactly what Energy Star appears to be scrambling to do now.

The fact that so many products met the Energy Star requirements yet do not carry the label poses another thorny question: is it possible manufacturers avoid Energy Star certification because they are nervous consumers will shy away from “energy efficient” products? I.e., the fear that consumers are asking themselves “will an Energy Star A/C unit really keep me as cool on a hot summer day?”

Similar doubts about efficacy have plagued “green” products, like environmentally safer soaps and diapers.

Stimulus Bill blowback?

The investigation was requested by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

Besides their use as a consumer guide, Energy Star certified products are eligible for some tax credits under the Stimulus Bill passed last year. Collins was one of only three Republicans who voted for that bill.

As the government’s most prominent efficiency program, Energy Star is also likely to be key to future efforts to reduce carbon emissions through energy efficiency. Earlier this week the program released its “Top 25” cities with the most energy-efficient buildings.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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