Energy Star and Oprah

“…it’s clearly much too easy to qualify for a label and time for

Energy Star to raise the bar.”

Energy Star is arguably one of the most successful government programs of our time. The program was created in 1992 by the US Environmental Protection Agency and began life as a voluntary labeling program designed to promote the use of energy efficient products.

The results achieved by Energy Star since its inception have been remarkable. In 2006, the program saved 170 billion kWh or nearly 5% of the total U.S. electricity demand, and helped to avoid 35,000 MW of peak power, the equivalent of 70 new power plants! Americans purchased more than 300 million Energy Star products last year across 50 product categories including appliances, heating & cooling equipment, consumer electronics, office equipment, and lighting.

In the process, Energy Star has become a rock star “mega brand” like Pepsi, Oprah, and Michael Jordon. More than 65% of the American public can identify the Energy Star label and one out of four households knowingly purchased an Energy Star product in 2006, and more than 60% of those households credited the label as an important factor in their decision.

Government is not supposed to know anything about marketing and “branding”, but I would argue that getting the Energy Star label on their products is in many cases much more important than the manufacturer’s own label. I can imagine many consumers saying, “I don’t care if it’s an Amana or a Maytag, does it have an Energy Star label?”

However, just purchasing a product that has the Energy Star label does not mean you’re getting the best. Here’s the rub. Energy Star is still part of the government, which means it’s not independent AND subject to political pressure. That is even more so today, now that it’s no longer flying under the radar. Take refrigerators as an example. You would think you could go to the Energy Star website and search for “best 22 cubic foot refrigerator”, and the Energy Star would just tell you that it’s an Acme Model 54785. Well, it’s not that easy. For one, if Energy Star did make it that easy, two dozen U.S. Senators would be getting calls from the CEO’s of all of the Acme company’s competitors.

So, to be politically correct, Energy Star publishes a list of qualified refrigerators that can be downloaded in pdf or xls format. Unfortunately this is a very large and cumbersome file that requires knowledge of the Excel’s “sort” function to analyze the data and make any kind of intelligent decision. Given the effort required, most of us will just go down to the store and purchase the lowest cost refrigerator that has an Energy Star label in color we want and call it a day.

So what’s in the list? I downloaded the March 2007 list and this is what I found.

  • There are 1644 products listed including side-by-side, top freezer, and bottom freezer models, and plain old freezers are thrown in just to make it more confusing
  • 1,216 (74%) of the products listed just pass the minimum requirement to be awarded an Energy Star label. [the minimum requirement is to be 15% more efficient than a specified “baseline”]
  • Only one manufacturer surpasses the baseline standard by more than 50%. More on them later.

If I break down the data by configuration (side-by-side, top freezer, bottom freezer) this is what I find.

  • There are 823 side-by-side models [obviously the most popular and unfortunately the least efficient] and 86% of those just meet the minimum requirement
  • Based on a measurement of kWh/cu.ft./year the best side-by-side scored 19.34 and worst scored 29.0. So the best is 33% better than the worst.
  • There are 284 top freezer models and 80% of those just meet the minimum requirement
  • Based on a measurement of kWh/cu.ft./year [and excluding anything under 15 cubic foot] the best top freezer scored 19.27 and worst scored 25.68. So the best is 25% better than the worst.
  • There are 314 bottom freezer models and 53% of those just meet the minimum requirement
  • Based on a measurement of kWh/cu.ft./year [and excluding anything under 15 cubic foot] the best bottom freezer scored 16.03 and worst scored 29.07. So the best is 45% better than the worst.

At this point I had to conclude that one, there is wide variation in efficiencies within the family of Energy Star certified refrigerators; two, that a lot of CEO’s are telling their engineering design staff to “just do the minimum to get us an Energy Star label”; and three, it’s clearly much too easy to qualify for a label and time for Energy Star to raise the bar.

Because I’m not subject to political pressure, just who makes the most energy efficient 22 cubic foot refrigerator? Here are the “Best in Show” for each configuration:

EnergyStar Best-in-Show Refrigerators

And that company that blew the rest of manufacturer’s out of the water on energy efficiency. It’s small company in Northern California called Sun Frost.

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2 responses to “Energy Star and Oprah

  1. This is excellent analysis and insight into this program – some good recommendations on refrigerators to boot – but I found the minimal requirements statistic most interesting. Not surprising I suppose, but it does anecdotally support the general corporate tendency to greenwash. True triple bottom line concepts still have a long way to go. Way to go Sun Frost!

  2. So, Sun Frost beats all the top models you listed?? Great article. I’ve wondered about this Energy Star label and where in the universe it came from. Going to check out Sun Frost. How can I find out what my old model puts out to see if it would be worth it to buy new??

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