By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010; A05
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.
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.
In interviews, Energy Department and EPA officials said the Energy Star program has done the best it could. They said it is tricky to determine when standards should be adjusted. If these become too tough too fast, they said, Energy Star products could become difficult to find.
In the fall, however, they resolved to update the criteria faster, which would eliminate lower-performing products from the list. For home appliances, for instance, a review would be triggered when the market share of Energy Star products hit 35 percent.
The two agencies also resolved to test more products. The government last month banned certain LG brand refrigerators from using the logo after spot checks showed that they didn't meet the standards.
Now, officials are adamant that customers can count on Energy Star to deliver on its "brand promise."
But what, exactly, is that?
It's not, officials said, that customers can count on an Energy Star product to be in the top 25 percent of the market. Vargas, the EPA official, defined an Energy Star product as "more efficient . . . than a conventional product."
But in some cases, Energy Star products are so prevalent it's as if they've become the "conventional product."
On one recent day at the Best Buy in the District's Tenleytown neighborhood, 14 of 23 refrigerators on one aisle had the star, as did 13 of 19 LCD computer monitors in a nearby display. Along one wall, 35 flat-screen televisions played nature scenes, hummingbirds on flowers that showed off the bright colors in their pictures.
Every one, the whole wall, was Energy Star-qualified.