Energy’s Fallen Star

Posted Nov. 15, 2009, at 6:09 p.m.

The Energy Star label is appearing more frequently on appliances and electronics — for the wrong reason. The label with the hand-drawn star is meant to assure consumers that the refrigerator, computer or washer they are thinking of buying is energy-efficient. But, because of lax oversight, the designation is increasingly meaningless, which defeats the purpose of the program. Federal regulators, with a push from Congress if necessary, should either significantly strengthen the program or come up with a new one that truly ensures that the products it endorses use less energy than comparable models.

A recent Energy Department audit found that Energy Star ratings were “not accurate or verifiable.” Stating the obvious, the audit concluded this “could reduce consumer confidence in the integrity of the Energy Star label.” Beyond losing confidence, consumers aren’t getting the energy savings they anticipate, either to save money or to reduce the impact on the environment.

A major problem is that companies are allowed to do their own testing with no government verification of the results. According Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, some refrigerator manufacturers turn off ice makers and water dispensers when testing to get an Energy Star Rating. When used as normal, the refrigerators use far more energy than consumers are led to believe.

The technology Web site CNET tested large plasma screen TVs after seeing some with Energy Star labels. It turns out the TVs were tested with their brightness set at especially low levels. When turned up to normal, more electricity is needed.

Another problem with the program, which is managed by the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, is that products are broken into subcategories. For example, side-by-side refrigerators aren’t compared to models with the freezer on top, which use far less energy. This is like only testing large SUVs against one another and then declaring certain models to be fuel efficient, while ignoring that they use four times more gas to go a mile than a hybrid car.

This points toward the vehicle fuel economy sticker, which is run by the same two government agencies, as a better model for energy efficiency. Just as new vehicles carry a label showing how far they go on a gallon of gas, appliances could have a label showing how much electricity they require in an hour of normal use. This would allow the comparison of all washing machines or dishwashers for example without consumers having to know the subtleties of their differences.

Adopting such an approach would make the Energy Star meaningful, while saving consumers money and reducing pollution.

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