When consumers buy a dishwasher, refrigerator or other product labeled with an Energy Star logo, they are supposed to have confidence that they are making an environmentally sound choice.
But that may not be the case, according to a March 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigational arm of Congress. The GAO described Energy Star as "for the most part a self-certification program vulnerable to fraud and abuse."
As part of its investigation into Energy Star, the GAO received certification for 15 bogus products, including a gas-powered alarm clock—even though in its application the GAO described it as "the size of a small generator and powered by gasoline."
Energy Star, which began in 1992, is overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. The program is designed to identify models for 60 categories of household and commercial products that are 10 to 25 percent more efficient than minimum federal standards.
It's big business: In 2008, more than 2,400 companies produced more than 40,000 types of Energy Star products. Millions of dollars of federal and state tax credits are offered to companies to manufacture—and to people to buy—Energy Star products. In addition, $300 million in stimulus money will be used for state rebate programs on energy-efficient products.
A company that wants to use the Energy Star logo has to sign an agreement with the EPA or Department of Energy stating it will comply with the program requirements. But since there is little oversight of the program, companies' claims aren't consistently verified.
In fact, the GAO found that even though it used false information—fictitious company Web sites, cell phone numbers and mailing addresses—the Department of Energy and/or the EPA approved several products in as little as two weeks without contacting the "company."
As a result the EPA and Department of Energy are considering a more rigorous screening process, which could include product testing by an outside company.
In the meantime, your alarm clock will get better mileage if you fill it with 93 octane.