Light bulb.An innocent light bulb or an energy inefficient scofflaw?Photo courtesy bitzcelt via FlickrThe federal energy efficiency cops are on the beat — finally.

For the first time in 35 years, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) is moving to enforce decades-old energy efficiency and water conservation standards for products like refrigerators, light bulbs, and shower heads.

On Monday, the DOE said it had filed enforcement actions against 27 companies for failing to certify that their products comply with energy efficiency and water conservation regulations.

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“As a part of its mission to help consumers purchase energy efficient products that will save them money, the Department sets energy efficiency standards for a vast array of consumer and commercial products,” wrote Scott Blake Harris, the department’s general counsel in a blog post Monday. “But when I arrived at DOE, I was stunned to discover that the Department had never systematically enforced DOE’s 35-year-old energy efficiency standards.”

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“The problem, of course, is that lax enforcement of energy efficiency standards undermines the goal of increased energy efficiency,” he added. “When efficiency standards are not regularly enforced, bad actors soon learn that they can gain an unfair economic advantage over law-abiding competitors by falsely or improperly certifying the efficiency of their products. This not only distorts competition in the short-term, but it undermines the kind of long-term competition that drives innovation.”

The DOE filed complaints against companies ranging from ASKO, the Swedish maker of upscale appliances, to Duralamp.

But the enforcement actions announced Monday will hardly make chief financial officers tremble.

General Electric, for instance, faces a maximum fine of $252,140 for not certifying that some dehumidifier models comply with energy efficiency standards. But the DOE proposed a civil penalty of $36,500 and informed GE — and other companies targeted for enforcement — that it would drop the case for $5,000 if the global conglomerate agreed to settle within 30 days and come into compliance.

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Likewise, Sanyo faces a maximum fine of $3.5 million for 58 violations involving its refrigerators and freezers. The proposed penalty is $316,333 but the department will settle for $10,000.

The DOE says that as a result of its enforcement program it has removed from the market 66 products that violated energy efficiency standards and filed a total of 75 enforcement actions to date.

“Before our effort,” noted the department’s general counsel, “the number of products that had been removed from the market was zero.”