Is the Energy Star Program Burning Out?

When a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation of the EPA’s Energy Star certification program last spring found that a room air cleaner with a feather duster and fly strips taped onto it qualified, you just knew there was going to be trouble.

And trouble there is. The March GAO report highlighted how vulnerable Energy Star’s self-certification program was to fraud and abuse. The GAO got Energy Star certifications for 15 bogus products, including the air cleaner and a battery-powered alarm clock the size of a small generator.

Although Energy Star was already moving toward more third-party certification of products, the scathing report lit a fire under EPA officials. They immediately stopped the self-certification process and started reviewing every application before listing the product on the Energy Star Website and allowing it to sport the “Energy Star” label. The other shoe drops January 1, when the program starts requiring manufacturers to submit test results from a third-party, accredited lab.

Manufacturers complain that the new system will be slower and more costly because it involves a third party. In fact, according to spokesmen at the Consumer Electronics Association and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), it will be so burdensome that some technology companies may pull out of the Energy Star program.

In fact, as of a Nov. 30, 2010, deadline, less than 50 percent of Energy Star participants had signed up for the revamped program, according to Katharine Kaplan, EPA team lead for Energy Star product development. The EPA was trying to encourage more companies to sign up, but those that don’t will be dropped from the program at the start of the year, says Kaplan.

Those companies that want to stay in the program are pleading for more time to prepare. While it seems simple enough to submit products to a certification body for testing, the global nature of the supply chain complicates things. The new rules require manufacturers to use EPA-approved certification bodies. As of Dec. 14, that amounted to seven for computers. Tech companies say that’s not going to be enough.

What’s more, most US technology companies use Asian partners to build and test their systems, and there are even fewer approved certification bodies in that part of the world, says Ken Salaets, director of global policy at the ITI in Washington. “Under the new system, there will probably be very few eligible certified labs anywhere near [our partner’s] facilities,” he says. On top of that, the requirements keep evolving, and manufacturers are confused about how the testing is supposed to work.

Is getting the Energy Star label on your product really worth all this trouble? When the program first launched, in the early 1990s, energy consumption was not a big factor in the computer purchase decision. Part of the program’s goal was to increase awareness of how much energy this equipment used. That goal has been reached. Today, energy consumption is a major consideration, at least for corporate and government buyers. Buyers don’t need Energy Star to give them a “green light” on energy savings; they are going to check out those power consumption numbers themselves.

How important is the Energy Star label to your company’s products? Will you continue to participate in the program? Or has the program outlived its usefulness and relevance?

— Tam Harbert has been covering electronics since the dawn of surface-mount technology. She lives online at Tam

15 comments on “Is the Energy Star Program Burning Out?

  1. SP
    December 16, 2010

    When something that was started voluntarily becomes a huge business necessity, its no longer remains unaffected from politics. There would be many interests that got crushed when the controversy came out and this all is aftereffect of that. But in the area of electronics its always beneficial for the end users if there is certification agency thats genuine.

  2. Barbara Jorgensen
    December 16, 2010

    I was bummed when I heard how meaningless the Energy Star label actually was. I always thought there was a third-party testing body behind that label. Score one for naivete. I hope the GAO report does light some fires so that the Energy Star lable becomes meaningful again.


  3. DataCrunch
    December 16, 2010

    I am all for energy conservation, but to be honest I rarely even think about looking for the Energy Star logo when purchasing electronics.  I recently purchased a Sony Vaio laptop online and it didn’t even enter my thought process.  What made my mind up was price and features.  I really don’t know how it would impact my future buying decisions because at the moment, it seems that most of the electronic products I buy have the logo.  For instance, go to any Best Buy and look for a laptop, everyone will most likely have the logo, so it is not even a consideration because it is just assumed they all are Energy Star certified.  I guess my mind would change if only a certain few have the logo, then it would stand out and perhaps sway me.

  4. Tam Harbert
    December 16, 2010

    Originally, the Energy Star program was supposed to identify something like the top 20% in terms of energy efficiency of any given product category. My impression is that went out the window awhile ago, as all equipment became more and more energy efficient. Now I think any equipment that meets or exceeds the Energy Star standard gets the label, and that's much more than the top 20% of any given category.

  5. Barbara Jorgensen
    December 16, 2010

    That is really interesting. So the question becomes, are the Energy Star standards too lax for the new generation of electronics? Maybe it is time to raise the bar.

    On the flip side, maybe the label actually did some good if so many products exceed the standard. Any thoughts?

  6. Parser
    December 16, 2010

    No, my previous company did not look at Energy Star ratings for last 5 years. We were asked to turn off monitors when leaving for a weekend. Computers were left on for their bookkeeping (disk de-fragmentation etc) and for remote connections. At home I do the same. If we raise the bar maybe even computers could have idle mode with slower clock for the times of bookkeeping. This mode could be made selectable in power settings. 

  7. SP
    December 17, 2010

    Good questions. I feel, with so much importance being given to energy efficiency, nowadays there are via techniques in design that are considered, there are chips that are more energy efficient and there may be more easy ways to make the product energy efficient. Yes its time to raise the bar and actually that would help the electronics industry as whole and the end cosumers. I am also very positive to your second question, definitely the labeling did good that every other product has the logo. Atleast we can give the benefit of doubt that many products would have gone through the actual certification and testing. Also when something is so common if anything goes wrong it starts the nation wise debate and something better comes out of it. 

  8. eemom
    December 18, 2010

    I find this process somewhat typical.  Something is implemented over a decade ago that was supposed to lower energy consumption.  Aparently, there were no clear measures or oversight given to the program.  Now, due to the investigation, the government finds that the program did not accomplish what it set out to do.  Their response is to instill much stricter measures in a very short amount of time without giving manufacturers time to adjust to the new rules or standards.  Now, what good does that do?  Why don't they implement a multi-step program that manufacturers can participate in and implement rather than have them drop out all together.  Whether consumers look for the energy star or not, it is beneficial to have energy saving products rather than give up on the notion all together.

  9. hwong
    December 19, 2010

    The energy star program may not accomplish direct results but I believe that people were made to believe that when they buy products with the Star on it they are doing the environment some good. In some ways, people are more conscious of energy usage just by having that label on their washing machine. At the same time, they will try to do more to help environment. So if all else fails, at least the program was able to raise awareness. Not all is lost.

  10. eemom
    December 19, 2010

    That's true enough, but do you believe that people are more aware of energy usage due to the energy star program or is it because we've become more aware as a nation that we need to conserve energy.  I would argue that even though the energy star MAY have raised awareness, it also misled the public in thinking they were using energy efficient product that may not have met the necessary criteria. 

  11. Ariella
    December 20, 2010

    What qualifies as Energy Star depends on specific benchmark figures.  It is possible, for example, to buy a refrigerator that is far more efficient than your old one but that still doesn't qualify as Energy Star.  The same holds true for washing machines, dishwashers, and air conditioning systems. When I asked for estimates on replacing a central air conditioning system, I was told that one that qualifies as Energy Star compliant and for the tax credit that is promised for it costs more than twice as much as a standard new system that would still be far more efficient than the old system.  In the end we opted for energy efficient units instead.  Those use far less energy than central systems do, especially  if you want to keep the temperature below 75 degrees. 

    The Energy Star program is based on electrical usage. But now the gas companies want to show that, they also are concerned about energy consumption.  National Grid advertises its 3% Less Initiative  with the words: 

    You might find it surprising that an energy company is leading the charge to reduce energy use.

    But that’s exactly what National Grid is doing.

    Because as a company, we’re committed to doing what’s right for the planet. What’s right for the communities we serve. And what’s right for the people who live in them.

    That’s why we’re asking all our customers to join us in reducing their energy consumption 3% a year for the next 10 years. With your help we can create a sustained social movement. And the results could be amazing.

  12. itguyphil
    December 21, 2010


    I agree. I think when buying appliances, most people will look for the Energy Star sticker even thought they do not really understand what it means. I think they are equating the ES with cost savings even though it might not necessarily be the best choice for true energy savings.

  13. Ms. Daisy
    December 21, 2010

    Will the bar be raised for other home appliances that are not electronic appliances or just the elctronics? If the bar is raised will this discourage manufacturers and the whole purpose of conservation will become defeated?

    Also, is it possible that more manaufacturers are heeding the call for conservation and are actually putting in some effort to make their products energy efficient? just a thought!

  14. eemom
    December 22, 2010

    Well, the issue is not just raising the bar, it is raising it with the goal of making manufacturers able to comply.  Just raising the bar, tightening controls and not giving manufacturers any time to adjust to the new specs doesn't help anyone.  Energy Star shouldn't a token program it should have meaning behind it but the right arm needs to talk to the left.

  15. Ms. Daisy
    December 22, 2010


    I agree to to need for meaning and purpose to the goals set with reasonable expectations so that manaufactirers can meet the criteria set. Good communication between all the parties will definitely help with the over arching goal of energy conservation to make the planet sustainable.

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