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Should Energy Star exist?

Tue, 10/28/2008 - 7:20am
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Government never furthered any enterprise but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.Henry David Thoreau 

JasonPilot200The recent Energy Star controversy must inevitably be discussed in a broader context. To sum up current events: on June 2nd, the EPA violated Energy Policy Act (EPACT) 2005 by releasing a “technical amendment” (version 4.2) to their Energy Star solid state lighting criteria without consulting “interested parties” (i.e. industry). Industry felt spurned because it wasn’t conferred with, and technology pundits felt the amendment gave legacy systems a crutch in order to remove a “competitive disadvantage.” But this begs a larger question: should Energy Star exist in the first place?

From the Energy Star homepage: “Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices.” Tangibly, it makes a bold claim: the elimination of 40 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and saving Americans $16 billion by adhering to its approved products. Rob Sturgill of RMS Labs is skeptical of the uncertain cost-benefit analysis. He says, “While their annual report suggests Energy Star has contributed to $16B in energy savings, it’s impossible to know what would have been saved through normal manufacturer and consumer behavior.”

Don Mulvey of ROAL Electronics feels differently. He says that, “The fundamental motive for consumers to purchase LED-based lighting products is energy savings. The Energy Star Rating equates to a validation of the consumer’s action and has the potential to improve product adoption rates.” Energy Star exists to affirm and promote environmentally friendly products. The recent technical amendment skewers this function. We were told version 4.2 exists to, “remove a competitive disadvantage for these general illumination or decorative light fixtures…without this technical amendment, these types of fixtures would not be eligible for the Energy Star Program.” But why should the EPA care if technologies don’t fit the criteria?

The fact that the EPA felt its technical amendment was necessary shows how flawed Energy Star is. The technologist in me says that LEDs are more efficient than fluorescents. Conversely, I’m stung by the EPA’s blithe interference with the free markets. Although Energy Star follows standardized criteria in certifying products, it will inevitably favor certain technologies. This is not the “technology-neutral approach” advocated by the Energy Star Lighting Program Manager.

Energy Star is necessary in some form. In its current iteration, however, Energy Star is worthless. A good improvement would be to rescind the amendment. A better solution is to redo the function of Energy Star. Publish the criteria for energy-efficiency, but don’t promote the products. This would be a true technology-neutral approach.

Do you agree? Disagree? Think I'm a crackpot? Send in your comments!

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