“Uncovering Flaws in the Energy Star Program” Weekly column

Would you buy a gasoline-powered alarm clock, the size of a small generator, which was advertised as “sleek, durable, easy on your electric bill, and surprisingly quiet?”

Would you buy a room air cleaner which featured an electric space heater with a huge feather duster and dangling strips of fly paper?

Would you consider these energy-efficient items, worthy of state tax rebates or federally funded credits?

Of course not. You would probably think it was all a bad joke.

And yet, the federal government granted those and 13 other products the coveted “Energy Star” status, allowing manufacturers to use the blue, iconic symbol that tells millions of American consumers these items are among the most energy-efficient on the market.

The good news: the products and companies that manufactured them were all bogus, the result of a “sting operation” carried out by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The bad news: The findings were so alarming that it is clear that the Energy Star program is unreliable and vulnerable to fraud.

At my request, the GAO conducted an investigation into the Energy Star certification program to assess the product review and certification processes for the Energy Star program.

The GAO formed four fake companies that created 20 bogus energy-efficient products, several of them outrageous on their face. Of the 20 fictitious products, 15 were granted Energy Star status by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which jointly run the program. Of the four fake companies, all were named Energy Star partners by the federal agencies.

Energy Star, created 18 years ago, is a voluntary labeling program designed to promote energy-efficient products. It touts itself as a trustworthy source for informing consumers about products that deliver the same or better performance as comparable models, while using less energy and thereby also saving money.

When products aren’t fully tested and still earn the “Energy Star” seal of approval, the American taxpayers carry the heaviest burden for this failed oversight. If I were to write a headline for this disturbing GAO report, it would be ‘Taxpayers Get Duped – Twice.”

First, taxpayers are shortchanged when Energy Star products are not thoroughly vetted, as required. Consumers may end up with less energy-efficient products than they thought they were buying, sometimes paying more on the front end for these appliances.

Second, taxpayers are shortchanged because their hard-earned dollars are being used to encourage the purchases of these products through state rebates and tax credits.

Clearly, when appliances attain the Energy Star certification without having to meet the Energy Star standards, then the American taxpayers are fleeced.

The two federal agencies involved are moving to address this problem, following a briefing by the GAO on the findings of the investigation. DOE and EPA recently said they would strengthen Energy Star through expanded testing. DOE has even issued subpoenas to three companies that were selling lamps that failed to meet federal energy efficiency standards.

This is appropriate and swift action. But it is unfortunate that it took the alarming results of the GAO report to get these two federal agencies to move rapidly and responsibly.

Now that we know how vulnerable the Energy Star certification process has been, we must have a strategy to repair the damage and to protect the integrity of the program. We cannot allow lax oversight and lazy scrutiny to harm a program that is sorely needed.

Consumers have come to rely on the highly recognizable Energy Star logo when making purchases because they see that label as a foolproof guide to the most energy-efficient appliances and products. That is why I believe stringent safeguards and tough oversight are required to be sure that consumers are protected and the integrity of the program is restored.

The results of the GAO investigation require an effective strategy to improve the program’s certification and oversight requirements. We need to move toward increased use of third-party verification to help confirm the energy efficiency claims of manufacturers. I will continue to press the DOE and the EPA to follow through by increasing oversight in the Energy Star program.

I want to be certain that the next time you see an Energy Star logo, you will know that the appliance bearing it is worthy of that distinction.