space heaterThis (ahem) “space heater” earned a government Energy Star rating.Photo: Government Accountability OfficeWell this is embarrassing: Federal monitors granted the Energy Star stamp of approval to a number of bogus appliances, including a gas-powered alarm clock and an electric space heater with a feather duster taped to it. The Government Accountability Office submitted the fake items in an audit to test the integrity of the well-known efficiency program. The New York Times describes how it worked:

The fake companies submitted data indicating that the models consumed 20 percent less energy than even the most efficient ones on the market. Yet those applications were mostly approved without a challenge or even questions, the report said.

“Auditors concluded that the Energy Star program was highly vulnerable to fraud.”

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As Kate Sheppard notes, Energy Star has been praised as one of the government’s most successful efficiency programs (until now anyway). Americans are used to seeing the logo on air conditioners, refrigerators, lamps, laptops, and other appliances.

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Sheppard offers another bit of context:

Even more worrying, the Energy Star program is also the inspiration for the Obama administration’s proposed $6 billion Home Star program, which will award ratings and incentives for more energy efficient homes.

Lane Burt, an NRDC building-energy specialist and Energy Star defender in the past, wants a stronger certification system:

I think it is clear why the manufacturer self certification system that Energy Star generally employs needs to be revised.  DOE and EPA have both acknowledged as much, as increased verification and compliance testing was part of the suite or improvements they proposed to the program last year.  In fact, the stakeholder calls on verification and testing will be held next week and NRDC will participate. The agencies have also taken immediate steps in response to the report.

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You can fit this quite easily into the narrative of “government bureaucrats can’t do anything right,” if that’s your ideological bent. In this case, a select office of government bureaucracy seems to have failed — although fed auditors did discover the problem. To me, the more interesting issue is how to improve what the government’s already doing. Read Lane Burt for more of that.

If you’re buying an appliance or laptop this weekend, Energy Star is probably still a more trustworthy guide than anything else out there.