Q: Is the Energy Star label all it's cracked up to be?
A: All that glitters is never really gold, is it? Energy Star may be the brightest twinkle in the sky when it comes to flagging energy-efficient products (it's the most popular green label on shelves), but it looks like it could use a little polish.
Just this month, Consumer Reports came out with a major dig against the government-led program started in the U.S. but adopted globally including by Canada, Japan and Australia. What's CR's beef exactly? It seems the 16-year-old program is way too lax about what gets the star of approval, which is supposed to alert consumers to products that are anywhere from 10 to 75 per cent more efficient than their competition.
Until recently, 92 per cent of all dishwashers qualified for the label. Part of the problem was that lab coats were gauging their energy use by running clean dishes through them. The standards have recently been tightened up, so about 50 per cent of dishwashers should now get the star.
Critics also say Energy Star's judgment criteria are just plain behind the times, or rather, behind the tech. Samsung claims that one of its newfangled Energy-Star-labelled fridges uses 540 kilowatt hours of energy a year. But in tougher testing that CR says "better resembles how you use a refrigerator," the fancy ice-dispensing French-door fridge actually uses 890 kWh per year. That's 60 per cent more power-sucking than advertised. A similar LG model used a good 50 per cent more. Why the gap?
Turns out that Energy Star's outdated standards call for icemakers to be turned off during testing, but with these new models, doing so would actually melt all the ice inside. Which leads us to the next major question: who's policing this henhouse anyway?
Why, that would be the fox, of course. Manufacturers are currently doing their own compliance testing, and there's no independent verification going on.
Consumers Union, the org behind Consumer Reports, says it's time for random spot-checks and independent testing to make sure products are living up to the label. A Euro-style ranking of product energy efficiency from 1 to 5 would be nice. Plus, CU wants to see more frequent reviews of testing procedures and standards instead of the molasses-paced overhauls we see today.
One Energy Star official I spoke to before the report came out acknowledged the program was too slow to catch up to technology and bring in new standards. For instance, the seal historically only told you your TV was energy-efficient in standby mode (kind of a joke, considering that most power is consumed when TVs are on.)
Energy Star will rectify that situation for television sets made after November 2008. After that, to earn a star they'll have to be around 30 per cent more efficient than conventional models when on and off. That only took, oh, a decade and a half to fix.
Now, the feds here might tell you the label is administered according to Canadian standards by Natural Resources Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE). According to them, products have to meet or exceed Canadian federal energy efficiency standards, but to be honest, even the OEE website admits most products that qualify in the U.S. automatically get the little blue-and-white star here, no questions asked.
Bottom line is, environmentalists don't want us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Overall, Energy Star is a good program that needs some tweaking. Even if Energy Star appliances save half of the 40 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions they claim to prevent, they're still helping us all breathe a little easier and spend a little less on hydro bills.
In the meantime, keep doing your number-crunching when you're shopping. Compare the kilowatts per hour listed on the EnerGuide stickers. Again, the numbers may not tell you everything about how much energy that slow-cooker or dishwasher uses in real life, but at least you get an idea.
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