Strengthen Energy Star standards

Last reviewed: October 2010

The 18-year-old Energy Star program, which is jointly administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, has announced some significant improvements in the last year. Manufacturers will no longer be able to certify their own products. Instead, the government will require energy-use testing of products by an approved, accredited lab. The DOE has also stepped up its compliance enforcement. We have been requesting those two changes for years.

Now we would like to see the same rigor applied to Energy Star qualifications, which were designed to help shoppers identify the top 25 percent of efficient products in a category. That bar has fallen woefully low over time. For example, roughly three-quarters of TVs, dishwashers, and dehumidifiers qualified for Energy Star in 2009.

The EPA doesn't necessarily think that's a problem. In interviews and postings on its website, it has stated that increasing the market share of energy-efficient appliances isn't a flaw.

It's good news that products have become more energy efficient. But when many or most of the products in a category qualify for the Energy Star, it makes it harder, not easier, for consumers to identify the truly exceptional products. Nor does it create incentive for manufacturers to improve efficiency or highlight their most efficient products. To encourage the latter, the EPA is considering a new label, Super Star, which would highlight the top 5 percent of products in a category. But unless the program is carefully administered, it could cause consumer confusion, while requiring more monitoring and enforcement. And given the government's history with Energy Star, officials would need to be vigilant that Super Star would single out only the top 5 percent.

The EPA should keep its focus on toughening Energy Star qualifications. When more than 35 percent of all products sold in any category qualify for Energy Star, that should signal that the technology and economies of scale have reached a point where achieving an Energy Star is too easy and that the bar needs to be raised.

Even in categories that don't have a large number of qualifying products, those models with an Energy Star can have energy costs that vary widely. The Kenmore 7531, a 22-cubic-foot, top-freezer refrigerator, and the Kenmore 7840, a 22-cubic-foot, French-door refrigerator, carry the Energy Star label. But based on our energy-use tests, the top-freezer model could cost about $50 a year to operate and the French-door refrigerator could cost around $145 per year. Over the lifetime of the units, that could mean a difference of more than $1,000. That's because different types of refrigerators have different Energy Star standards. We base our efficiency score on energy used per usable cubic foot of capacity regardless of the type of refrigerator. That makes comparing easier. We have suggested that the Energy Star program also do that.