Energy Star Exposé
It's time for this label to grow some teeth
A government report today exposed some startling problems with the federal Energy Star labeling program. In a secret audit, the Government Accountability Office found that several preposterously inefficient and even laughable fake appliances were able to earn the government’s gold-standard label intended for exceptionally efficient products.
According to this New York Times article, the fictitious appliances included a gasoline-powered alarm clock and an "air purifier" that was nothing more than a space heater with a feather duster attached on top. They were submitted to the EPA and DOE, who jointly run the Energy Star program, by the Government Accountability Office under the guise of made-up company names and addresses.
Though the pictures of the appliances look like something you’d expect to see on a late-night comedy show, energy efficiency is a serious matter. That’s because the efficiency—or inefficiency—of our appliances makes a huge difference in our ability to quench our country’s ever-growing thirst for energy.
In Earthjustice’s work, trying to lift the low bar for how inefficient appliances can be by law, we have found that by simply raising minimum federal efficiency standards for appliances, our country can save mind-boggling amounts of energy and money. Specifically, strong efficiency standards on two dozen common home and commercial appliances could save the U.S. 1.9 trillion kilowatt-hours of energy a year—that’s roughly enough power to meet the total electricity needs of every American household for 18 months—as well as save Americans $123 billion on their utility bills.
These standards are not new. DOE has been setting them for more than two decades—since 1978, in fact, when Congress passed a law that required the federal government to set efficiency standards on appliances. These standards have helped the government maintain stability of our stressed energy grid by ridding the market of egregiously wasteful appliances and requiring that manufacturers use current and available technologies as opposed to outdated or antiquated technologies.
Still, though, we have choices as consumers. Many manufacturers make appliances on a range of efficiency levels and offer much more efficient choices than the baseline standard. This means we will always have the choice to buy the "Hummer" or the "Prius" of fridges, for example. But the federal standard, with its scientific analyses and legal enforcement mechanisms, ensures that all the choices on the shelf at least meet the low bar.
The high bar, however, looks to be shaky. Since 1992, we have relied on the Energy Star label to indicate the gold-standard of efficiency, even though DOE and EPA have been running the label without real mechanisms to ensure or enforce its accountability.
Last week, perhaps in anticipation on this exposé, DOE and EPA announced a new two-step process to expand testing of Energy Star qualified products. This is definitely a good step in the right direction, but there must be a way to put some real enforcement teeth on this program—to prevent the type of fraud that was proven possible by the government audit described above.
One can only hope the agencies’ plan to bring accountability to the program helps, especially as Americans pay a premium in exchange for the government’s "guarantee" that their product sucks less energy from the grid and saves them money in utility bills. But even better, though, would be a move by Congress to start making accountability for this label official and enforceable.
Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.