GAO Sting Finds EnergyStar® Program in Need of Independent Review; Overhaul Imminent

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While much of the EnergyStar® program is sound, and has led to real quantifiable energy savings over time, over the last four years,  alarm bells have been sounding on the increasingly lax certification process. Just how lax?


A gasoline-powered alarm clock the size of a microwave was one of the more ridiculous items able to get an automated label in a year-long undercover sting operation by the General Accounting Office.

Alarms had been sounding for the last 4 years, leading up to a year long investigation that uncovered the flawed certification process.  So this month, the EPA and the DOE announced that it will begin a long overdue overhaul of certification processes to get the EnergyStar® program back on track.

For the first time, all products seeking the EnergyStar® label will be tested in approved labs and require manufacturers to participate in an ongoing verification testing program to will ensure continued compliance.

The problem had been developing for years. By 2006 a Federal court required that the DOE update and tighten misleading EnergyStar® ratings, ruling in favor of 14 states with complaints about lax ratings for dishwashers, air conditioners, heaters, furnaces and clothes dryers, among other appliances.

Consumer Reports noted in October 2008 that there were still problems with the label including lax qualifying standards, federal testing procedures that were outpaced by current technology, and reliance on industry self-policing. In December of 2008, an audit by the EPA Office of the Inspector General found that claims regarding greenhouse gas reductions were inaccurate and based on faulty data.

So early in 2009, Senator Susan Collins (R- ME) the ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs asked the GAO to test the product certification process, to ensure that it does indeed meet real efficiency requirements.

Beginning in June, the GAO ran a 12 month test. The just completed year-long test has indeed conclusively determined that manufacturers could obtain EnergyStar® partnership and product certification even for products not meeting the supposed efficiency requirements.

The GAO found that companies can easily submit fictitious energy-efficiency claims in order to obtain qualification for a broad range of consumer products.

“Based on our investigative results, we found that the current process for becoming an EnergyStar partner and certifying specific products as EnergyStar compliant provides little assurance that products with the EnergyStar label are some of the most efficient on the market. Control weaknesses associated with the general lack of upfront validation of manufacturer self reported data allowed all of our bogus firms to become EnergyStar partners, and allowed most of our products to be certified as Energy Star compliant.”

The program has primarily been a self-certification program relying on corporate honesty and industry self-policing to protect the integrity of the energy efficiency label. But now it appears that it is time to put in place a rigorous certification process based on independent testing.

Especially now, as the comparable new HomeStar program advances through congress, the need to restore the integrity of the original program that it would be based on becomes even more urgent. The self-policing aspect of the first program clearly does not provide the checks and balances needed. Kudos to a Republican ranking member for initiating such a review.

Image: The White House at Flikr

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