How much are those appliances and electronic devices sporting Energy Star logos truly downsizing America’s obese ecological footprint? And how much do your “green” products and building materials really trim your utility costs? Maybe not as much as you think, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report that casts doubt on the Energy Star certification as unfailing guarantee of a product's energy efficiency.
Under the guise of four bogus manufacturing companies, GAO submitted 20 fictitious products to Energy Star from June 2009 to March 2010 and saw Energy Star qualify 15. Energy Star gave very little scrutiny to many of the products before awarding them an environmentally friendly emblem, the GAO report notes.
Energy Star, established after the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and the Energy Policy Act of 1992, is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) joint venture. The program aims to promote sustainable home appliances and electronic devices and to help American save money on their power bills by identifying energy efficient products and building materials. All but four states offer rebates to consumers who purchase products or materials approved by Energy Star. The program reports saving Americans nearly $17 billion on their utility bills and stopping the emission of a massive amount of greenhouse gases — equal to the amount 30 million cars would produce — in 2009 alone.The Energy Policy Act of 2005 even mandates that federal buyers select Energy Star-qualified products.
The results of GAO’s covert testing, however, unveil cracks in Energy Star’s credibility. A product named “Black Gold" –a 15" by 18" gas-powered radio alarm clock–was one of the bogus electronic devices Energy Star certified. The generator-sized, gas-powered clock radio, which GAO described in their application to Energy Star as “sleek, durable, easy on your electric bill, and surprisingly quiet,” qualified as meeting all Energy Star product requirements.
GAO suspected Energy Star officials hadn’t bothered to read the product description.
Energy Star qualified 14 other products in categories including lighting, computers and electronics, heating and cooling products, and building products. Many of the product claims that GAO sent Energy Star—in particular, bold boasts about a device's efficiency—were rarely tested by Energy Star or corroborated with a third party before receiving Energy Star’s approval.
The length of the certification process varied considerably, taking “from minutes to months,” GAO reported.
The study suggests Energy Star at best skimmed the information GAO cooked up about their fake products. Take the room air cleaner and geothermal heat pump for example. GAO’s bogus firms claimed each electronic product operated at a 20 percent higher energy efficiency than any of the similar products found on the Energy Star Web site, yet both the cleaners and the heat pump received Energy Star’s endorsement. No one investigated the high efficiency claims.
To Energy Star’s credit, officials did request independent third-party testing for four products. This control prevented two products, a compact fluorescent light bulb and a ventilating fan, from gaining an Energy Star accreditation. However in other cases, in which GAO’s firms claimed they had used an independent third-party to evaluate their products before submitting them, Energy Star failed to verify that GAO’s fake companies had indeed sought outside product assessment.
In the case of the room air cleaner, for instance, GAO’s false company claimed they had commissioned an independent third-party, Underwriters Laboratories, to review the product. Energy Star officials never checked to ensure the air room cleaner met Underwriters’ ozone emissions standards, nor did Energy Star take a look at an independent third-party testing file on the cleaner. Without further ado, the product won an Energy Star logo.
Overall Energy Star certified 15 products and rejected two. GAO was still waiting for a qualification decision from Energy Star on three products when the investigation came to an end.
Even more troubling than the apparent lack of rigor in the Energy Star’s certification process, was the ease with which GAO’s bogus companies obtained Energy Star partnerships.
Energy Star accepted each counterfeit manufacturing firm as a partner in less than two weeks, GAO reported, "using only Web sites, commercial mailboxes and cell phones to serve as corporate presence."
No Energy Star official called the telephone numbers GAO fabricated for their manufacturing companies, nor did any Energy Star representative attempt to visit the addresses of the fake firms.
GAO’s phony firms faced no barriers that would have prevented them from self-certifying their own products with Energy Star’s logo. Upon accepting each company as a partner, Energy Star granted all four bogus companies user account information required to log in to My Energy Star Account (MESA). A secure section of the Energy Star Web site where firms can download product certification labels, MESA is supposed to be off limits to corporations who have never had a energy-saving product certified. Access is only granted after a company successfully qualifies a product with Energy Star. Yet contrary to Energy Star’s protocol, the fake GAO firms received user account information to access MESA before any Energy Star approved any of their products as meeting power-saving standards.
GAO’s report did not only shed light on the lack of scrutiny in Energy Star’s certification process and the program's shortcomings in granting corporate partnerships. Their findings also underscore the weight American consumers place on the Energy Star label.
Because their company names were listed on the Energy Star Web site, the manufacturing firms GAO invented for the investigation received a slew of requests for their products and a number of inquiries for their services. One company received multiple inquiries about purchasing an external power supply adapter from a consumer who had found the corporation listed as an Energy Star partner.
GAO concluded that due to the weight Americans place on Energy Star certified appliances and electronics, it is essential that alleged “green” products be subjected to stricter testing. Until more stringent procedures are implemented, the tiny Energy Star symbol on your home appliance, electronic device or home construction materials may be little more than ornamentation.