Energy Star Debacle Shows Danger of Self-Certification

June 14, 2010

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report showing that undercover auditors succeeded in earning the Energy Star label for 15 out of 20 bogus products during a nine-month study, according to an article in Sustainable Industries.  It is not the first time the label has come under scrutiny.  In 2007 and 2009, inspectors reported lax management of controls and oversight of the certification process.  Consumer Reports reviewed the program in 2008 and found lax qualifying standards, outdated testing procedures, and reliance on self-policing.

The problems found with the Energy Star program are indicative of those found with other programs that do not provide third-party certification.  “It’s part of the market transformation we’re all experiencing,” says Elaine Aye, principal with Green Building Services in Portland, Oregon.  “As a professional … I have to rely on third-party systems to guide me.  When I know that it is [certified], I’m much more inclined to support or believe the info.”

This belief in the validity of third-party certified programs is the driving force behind the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program.  It is one of the only programs where a project is reviewed by an outside committee to determine if the design and construction meet the requirements for certification.  This rigor is a factor that building owners should be looking at when deciding whether to pursue certification.  Saying a building is designed to a certain standard and actually having someone else review it and confirm the design meets the standard are two different things.

In response to the report by the GAO, the EPA and the Department of Energy issued a statement that they are taking “aggressive action,” noting that they have taken action against over 30 manufacturers in the last four months for violating the efficiency standards of the program.  They also said that they are developing expanded testing requirements, so products will be tested in approved labs and will require continued testing to ensure compliance.

Photo courtesy of Energy Star web site.



Dawn Killough

has over 15 years experience in the construction industry and is the author of Green Building Design 101, an e-book available from Amazon. She is a LEED AP and Certified Green Building Advisor, and has worked on the LEED Certification of three projects in Salem, Oregon.