Energy Star Program Needs Changes to Deliver Energy Efficiency

My October 5 blog mentioned concerns with the Energy Star program used in the USA to guide consumers to select energy-efficient appliances.  A recent audit confirmed those concerns, according to an article published on October 18 in the New York Times.  There have been circumstances in which manufacturers have gamed the testing to produce the desired results of an Energy Star rating.  LG refrigerators were recently the subject of an investigation that resulted in a settlement involving retrofits and compensation to consumers for inaccurate self-test results. 

Here’s a list of products that are not independently tested and certified for energy consumption: 

  • TVs
  • Computers
  • Refrigerators
  • Washing machines
  • Water heaters
  • Dishwashers
  • Room air conditioners
  • Doors
  • Skylights

 At this time, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have only required a few products to be independently tested, including windows, LED, and fluorescent lighting devices.   However, when almost all of the devices tested qualify for an Energy Star rating, a common occurrence for compact fluorescent lights, then there is something wrong with the evaluation standards too. 

 The Energy Star program is also behind the times in terms of categories of products.  Currently, game consoles are not evaluated.  A 2008 study by NRDC reports that one PlayStation or Xbox powered 24X7 consumes as much energy as two new refrigerators each year.   (Side note:  legislation – the Green Gaming Act of 2009 – was introduced in September with the support of the video gaming industry and environmental groups to require the DOE to study energy usage and determine if energy efficiency standards should be set.)

 There’s great opportunity for improvement in the Energy Star program, which is suffering from a lack of integrity, low or outdated evaluation criteria, and insufficient coverage of consumer devices.  The Energy Star program needs dramatic changes to deliver on its original mission to identify and promote energy-efficient products that reduce greenhouse gases.  A recent agreement between the DOE and the EPA takes a couple of steps in the right direction – these two agencies that jointly administer the Energy Star program agreed to institute testing by independent labs and expand the categories of products that are tested.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that no date was identified for these changes to be effected.   

 The DOE and EPA need to seriously consider raising the bar on what constitutes an energy-efficient device.  Should all products qualify?  Probably not, since it makes it difficult for consumers to properly evaluate the pros and cons of devices.  The agreement referenced above talks about creating a super star ranking for the top 5% of energy-efficient products.   Huh?  The EPA already spends a significant amount of time and money educating the public about the Energy Star program.  Is it really wise to make the program more complex and complicate the messaging?  Why not use the current Energy Star logo, readily recognized by consumers in the USA, and make it exclusively apply to only the top 5% of independently-tested and certified energy-efficient products in any category?  That action will go a long way to restoring program integrity, raising the bar to manufacturers to design ever more innovative energy-saving features, and really reducing energy consumption costs for consumers.   

 And finally, the Energy Star program should prioritize on the devices that consume the most energy on the electrical grid.  According to information from EPRI, TVs, lighting, and refrigerators have the greatest potential for energy savings.  Doing this will help us collectively reduce overall energy requirements on the grid, and eliminate the need for additional power plants.