Correction to This Article
Lowell Ungar was misidentified in this story. He is the director of policy for the Alliance to Save Energy.

Wide variance in products that qualify for federal Energy Star program

According to government data, 67 percent of dishwashers bear the government's Energy Star logo.
According to government data, 67 percent of dishwashers bear the government's Energy Star logo. (Jim R. Bounds/bloomberg News)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

Government data show that the federal Energy Star program, whose familiar logo adorns products from light bulbs to furnaces, can work a bit like Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, Minn.

In Lake Wobegon, every child is above average. Under the Energy Star program, the same can be said of appliances.

In 2008, the most recent year for which the government has data, 79 percent of all the televisions sold in the United States carried the Energy Star logo. Same with dehumidifiers (75 percent) and dishwashers (67 percent).

Instead of recognizing only high-performing products, it appears the program often gave the same star to the first-rate and the middle-of-the-road.

In addition, a report from a government auditor in November found that some products without the mark were more energy-efficient than some showing the Energy Star logo. It concluded that there was a problem at the heart of the wildly popular program.

"EPA cannot be certain ENERGY STAR products are the more energy-efficient and cost-effective choice for consumers," says the report from the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general.

Now, as the Obama administration puts special emphasis on conserving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, federal officials say customers should have confidence in the Energy Star label.

At the same time, they have promised to do a better job policing it. In 2009, the government updated its standards for dishwashers, culling some products, and it is set to do the same for TVs this year.

"It may have been typical" for such large percentages of certain products to qualify for the Energy Star logo in the past, said Maria Vargas, an EPA official who helps oversee the program. "It is not an illustration of the future."

This winter and spring, Energy Star -- run jointly by the EPA and the Department of Energy -- will be crucial to a nearly $300 million White House program that resembles "Cash for Clunkers."

Details vary by region, but typically, customers could receive rebates for buying certain Energy Star appliances during defined periods. For instance, the D.C. government plans to give $50 for an Energy Star refrigerator and at least $100 for a clothes washer.

(Here are the rebate Web sites for the District, Maryland and Virginia.)

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