The Energy Star label is meant to alert consumers to appliances and electronics that are energy-efficient. If the label is awarded to products based on rigged tests, or worse, to fake products, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report, the designation is meaningless.
Sen. Susan Collins has taken a step toward fixing the problem by showing that problems with the program, which is administered by the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, are rampant.
As part of its research, the GAO created four fake companies with 20 made-up energy-efficient products; 15 of the products — including a gas-fired alarm clock and a room air cleaner made of a space heater with a feather duster and strips of fly paper attached — received Energy Star designations.
Although less outrageous, a review by the Department of Energy auditor found major problems as did independent investigations. A serious shortcoming is that companies are allowed to do their own testing with no government verification of the results. According to 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.
“Taxpayers are shortchanged twice when Energy Star products are not thoroughly vetted, as required,” Sen. Collins said this week. “First, buyers willing to pay more for these products may not reap the promised levels of energy efficiency that the Energy Star logo certifies. Second, taxpayer dollars are being used to encourage purchases of these products through rebates and tax credits, without — we now know — the rigorous testing to ensure the products actually meet Energy Star standards. In this way, the taxpayers are being fleeced twice.”
One solution may be to model the vehicle fuel economy sticker, which is run by the same two government agencies. 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.
This, coupled with a more rigorous independent review of products, would make the Energy Star meaningful, while saving consumers money and reducing pollution.