By the Numbers: DOE Inspector General audit IDs Energy Star issues

Consumer Reports News: October 20, 2009 12:33 PM

90 percent

Approximate percentage of compact fluorescent lightbulbs that qualify for the federal government's Energy Star, according to the recently released "The Department's Management of the Energy Star Program," an audit by the U.S. Department of Energy's Inspector General.

Energy Star, a joint program of the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was launched in 1992 to help you identify the most energy-efficient options across dozens of product categories. The program has succeeded in saving consumers money and in raising public awareness of energy-efficiency matters; what's more, 70 percent of U.S. consumers recognize the Energy Star logo. But for many product categories, Energy Star hasn't been fast enough to update testing procedures or qualifying standards or implemented independent, third-party verification of energy use.

Consumer Reports
has called for changes to the program for years, including in our October 2008 investigation " Energy Star Has Lost Some Luster," and the Inspector General's audit makes some of the same points.

Energy Star's guidelines indicated that about 25 percent of products in a category should qualify for an Energy Star. The fact that 90 percent of CFLs currently make the grade shows that the standards aren't tough enough, a point made in the Inspector General's audit: "One of the underlying principles of the Energy Star Program is to help consumers differentiate the most energy-efficient products within a given category. When 90 percent of the [products qualify], the consumer cannot easily judge the relative efficiencies of CFL products." (Note that using CFLs in the right applications can save you real money, and we recommend you buy Energy Star-qualified CFLs. As stated in our October 2009 report on CFLs, m ost non-Energy Star CFLs we tested had lower overall scores than Energy Star-qualified bulbs. Check our CFL ratings, available to subscribers, to find the top performers.)

This "overqualification" has not been limited to lighting. As we reported last fall, at one point half of all dishwashers qualified for an Energy Star, as did 67 percent of residential-use oil-fired boilers and 60 percent of dehumidifiers.

Less than three weeks after he took office, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum that called on the U.S. Department of Energy to update it efficiency standards for many household appliances. In that memorandum, the president requested that "the DOE take all necessary steps . . . to finalize legally required efficiency standards as expeditiously as possible and consistent with all applicable judicial and statutory deadlines."

Even when qualification standards are rigorous, the Energy Star program too often relies on self-regulated compliance from manufacturers. At best, this policy results in honest mistakes. At worst, it appears to open the door for obfuscation aimed at gaming the system. In our October 2008 report, we identified one refrigerator that used more than twice as much energy as claimed by the manufacturer. Citing that finding, the Inspector General called Energy Star's "lack of oversight and control in the area of product testing and certification" its most significant shortcoming.

"Third-party certification of compliance conducted by independent, accredited testing laboratories combined with DOE spot checking of Energy Star and energy-usage claims by manufacturers . . . is an important first step in ensuring Energy Star labeling is meaningful and helpful to consumers," wrote Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports and the Home & Garden blog, in an October 16, 2009, letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

The DOE has made some recent moves to strengthen its enforcement of energy-efficiency standards. Last week, the agency announced that it had established an enforcement team within the Office of the General Counsel and will set up a program to randomly review compliance with DOE certification requirements by manufacturers, and further detailed its enforcement of energy-efficiency regulations.

"For the sake of our environment and our economy, it's critical that we enforce our energy-efficiency regulations," said Scott Blake Harris, general counsel of the DOE, in an October 13 release. "Strong enforcement of the rules will encourage compliance and keep manufacturers who break the law from having a competitive advantage over manufacturers who play by the rules."

We'll continue to follow the news surrounding Energy Star. —Daniel DiClerico | | Twitter | Forums | Facebook

Essential information: If you're in the market for new, more-efficient appliances, read our FAQ on the $300 million cash for clunkers for appliances rebate program.

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