Correction to This Article
Lowell Ungar was misidentified in this story. He is the director of policy for the Alliance to Save Energy.
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Wide variance in products that qualify for federal Energy Star program

Rising star

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)

Since Energy Star's launch in 1992, it has gained broad acceptance as a government guarantee of energy efficiency for buyers worried about the dubious claims of some products. At last count, the star was awarded to more than 40,000 models in more than 60 product categories, according to the EPA. The logo is recognized by more than 75 percent of the public, the agency says.

"Energy Star and price are neck-and-neck" as the two most important factors in some appliance-buying decisions, said Suzanne Shelton, president and chief executive of a Knoxville, Tenn., advertising agency.

Environmental groups praise the program for giving an incentive to make energy-efficient products that use less electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Lowell Ungar, director of the Alliance to Save Energy, said a refrigerator today uses 75 percent less power than one from the 1970s. "Energy Star has certainly played a key role in that," he said.

Ungar said he was not very troubled by the idea that more than half of some products carry the Energy Star logo. He said it means a large sector of the market has shifted toward greater efficiency.

"That situation is not perfect," Ungar said. "But from a broader standpoint, it means the program worked."

Federal officials said standards are supposed to get tougher as technology improves.

The program sets baseline targets -- for a product's energy use per hour, or power use while in sleep mode, for instance -- and awards the Energy Star to products that outperform them. Ideally, officials say, the intent is to reward the top 25 percent of models in a given category.

If standards aren't updated, however, more and more products may improve over time, resulting in a market full of devices with the logo.

A crowded constellation

In 2008, EPA data show, consumer purchases of Energy Star products accounted for more than 25 percent of the market in 20 of 31 product categories. In 10 categories, they accounted for more than half of all products sold.

That has some observers worried about grade inflation. If standards don't keep pace and the market becomes flooded with Energy Star products, that might dilute customers' confidence and weaken the pressure on manufacturers to get better.

"It makes the Energy Star worth a little less to the consumer if it's something everybody's got," said Celia Lehrman, deputy home editor of Consumer Reports magazine.

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