The Greenwash Brigade

Is the Energy Star critique throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Janne K. Flisrand Mar 28, 2010

You heard the news about the GAO report on Energy Star. (Scroll down to March 5.)

When I first heard the story, I dismissed it. When I read it, I reconsidered, and still thought it was unimportant. Now, having read the report, I think poor reporting highlighted red herrings (like the feather-duster-space-heater) and mostly missed the real issues that the GAO uncovered.

First, the red herrings.

  1. Approval of non-existent products – sure, the program ought to be smarter than letting them in and they must fix the problem. But so what? No one is being ripped off when they buy those products, because they don’t exist. Not a big deal.
  2. This got less reporting, but some qualifying products (including super-efficient ones) don’t carry the logo. Energy Star is a voluntary program. If manufacturers don’t want to accept the gift of free marketing from a well-recognized program that is proven to increase demand, that’s their problem.

Another issue the GAO highlighted is easy access to the label, making it easy to slap an Energy Star label on anything. I haven’t seen any reports of this happening, and before I get too concerned I want to know whether it’s actually an issue. Can any readers help out here? Or is this another red herring?

Do you remember anything else from the news stories? If not, that’s bad just reporting. There ARE real problems.

To find them, start by reading the “Highlights” page (PDF) from the GAO. The two that popped out at me were the geothermal heat pump and the refrigerator.

With the geothermal heat pump – and geothermal is an industry that is rife with performance problems and misleading marketing – the lack of questioning such high efficiency claims from a company without a track record is frightening.

That refrigerators are not subject to third-party testing is plain and simple foolishness. While I can accept, with reservations, that not every product needs complete testing, refrigerators are both huge electricity consumers and a necessity for homes and offices. There is a history of problems with Energy Star labeled refrigerators, and if any product is susceptible to false labeling from manufacturers downloading and slapping undeserved stickers on products, this is a good place to look. I’m thankful that Energy Star began (this week) testing some of the biggest household energy hogs: refrigerators, freezers, clothes washers, dishwashers, water heaters and room air-conditioners.

Not in this report, there are other Energy Star controversies. The program faces serious consumer credibility challenges!

Do consumers know that Energy Star has some real successes? Some product categories, like light bulbs, require independent third-party testing. Their “whole house” standards, Energy Star Homes (new homes) and Home Performance with Energy Star (existing homes), require independent third-party testing and have a strong track record.

Given the mixed record – how do you think we hold Energy Star accountable without tossing the baby out with the bathwater?

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