The EPA’s Energy Star program, for nearly two decades the nation’s trusted label for energy-efficient products, has recently come under fire from the government and the media amid allegations of faulty certifications, lack of verifications, and potential decline in brand clout.
The most recent, and perhaps the most damaging, incident resulted from a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation in which 15 fake products—including a gas-powered alarm clock—earned the Energy Star label. Four of the 20 products submitted were required to provide third-party verification, but of those, two were eventually allowed through because Energy Star didn’t verify the requested information.
“At briefings on GAO’s investigation, [Department of Energy] and EPA officials agreed that the program is currently based on self-certifications by manufacturers,” the GAO report says. “However, officials stated there are after-market tests and self-policing that ensure standards are maintained.”
The EPA released a statement following the GAO report, stating that it uses a series of checks to ensure Energy Star–labeled products save energy and reduce emissions. “We welcome all efforts, internal or external, to improve the program, and this report raises important issues,” the statement said. “That’s why we have started an enhanced testing program and have already taken enforcement actions against companies that have violated the rules.”
This isn’t the first time concerns over self-certification have landed the EPA program in the spotlight. In November 2008, several LG French-door refrigerators lost their Energy Star label following findings that the manufacturer’s test procedures underestimated the appliances’ energy use.
And amid these woes are continued allegations that the Energy Star label no longer represents only the most efficient products, even though the EPA releases new, more stringent requirements for categories every few years.
For example, just before the LG news broke in 2008, Consumer Reports wrote an article saying that Energy Star “hasn’t kept up with the times” because of lax qualifying standards, out-of-date testing procedures, and self-certification.
Energy Star and the DOE announced changes April 14 requiring manufacturers to submit lab reports and results for review and approval by the EPA. The group also will no longer rely on an automated approval process. By the end of the year, test results must come from an EPA-approved and -accredited lab.
In addition to these changes, the DOE already conducts “off-the-shelf” testing for common household appliances; a recent audit found 98% of labeled products comply with requirements.
“Consumers trust the Energy Star brand to save them money and reduce carbon pollution,” said Cathy Zoi, DOE assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, in a statement. “The steps we are taking to strengthen the program will ensure that Energy Star continues to be the hallmark for energy efficiency in the years to come.”