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The most efficient gas-powered clock radio ever

This nonexistent device and numerous others submitted by fictitious companies were approved for Energy Star certification.

By Karen Datko Apr 1, 2010 11:21AM

This guest post comes from Frank Curmudgeon at Bad Money Advice.


You know those blue Energy Star labels you sometimes see on appliances in the store? Think hard. No, not the train that gets stuck in the Channel Tunnel when it gets cold. That’s EuroStar.


Energy Star is a joint program of the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy to help Americans “save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices.” Their elaborate and cheerful Web site goes on to claim that:

Americans, with the help of ENERGY STAR, saved enough energy in 2009 alone to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 30 million cars -- all while saving nearly $17 billion on their utility bills.

That’s a savings of about $150 per household last year. And you are only vaguely aware of the program? Ungrateful wretch.


You probably ignore those blue badges on the dishwashers, air conditioners, decorative light strings, enterprise servers, and new houses that you buy. You just assume that the whole thing is an unholy amalgam of marketing gimmickry and the Clinton administration’s penchant for government-sponsored symbolism.


Well, you might be right on that last bit. The GAO recently released its findings of an investigation of the EPA/DOE’s Energy Star certification process (.pdf file). (Old codgers like me think GAO stands for General Accounting Office, but in 2004 it was renamed the Government Accountability Office, part of the Bush administration’s penchant for cringe-inducing agency names.)


I have decided that the GAO is the Washington department I hate the least. Not only do they spend their time pointing out how bad other government agencies are, but from the report on Energy Star it is clear that they have a great sense of humor.

A less imaginative and whimsical investigator might have tested the theory that just about anything can get an Energy Star badge if its producer asks nicely enough with, say, a too large air conditioner or a string of Christmas lights that draws too much juice, and left it at that. Not my boys at the GAO.


They submitted to Energy Star, and got approved, specs for a gasoline-powered alarm clock. Sadly, they did not build a prototype, but they described their envisioned device as being 18-by-15-by-10 inches in size. “Gas-powered clock radio is sleek, durable, easy on your electric bill, and surprisingly quiet.” Of course, if the clock next to your bed produces enough carbon monoxide, you won’t care how noisy it is.


To be fair, it should be pointed out that the GAO’s gas- powered alarm clock was no doubt the most fuel-efficient gas-powered alarm clock ever submitted to Energy Star.

The GAO also asked for approval on a few other things, all from completely fictitious companies. There was an “air room cleaner” in the form of a feather duster taped to what appears to be a space heater. (Photo of prototype on page 12 of GAO report.) That one got certified, but the GAO gave up on waiting to hear back about their “electric office hammer.”

Even the approval of relatively dull things from the GAO -- a furnace, a water cooler, etc. -- was amusing. You see, none of these things actually existed, nor did the companies submitting them actually exist. It is clear that the merry pranksters at the GAO worried about being dinged because of these sorts of technicalities, so they took some minimal precautions, setting up a few Web sites (URLs, tragically, not provided in the report) and renting a few mailboxes. They gave cell phone numbers for company voice lines and disconnected numbers for faxes. This turned out to be overkill.

To become an Energy Star partner, we submitted an Energy Star partnership commitment form for each bogus company listing basic contact information, a fictitious point of contact, and pertinent manufacturing categories. All four bogus companies were granted Energy Star partnership by EPA and/or DOE within 2 weeks. The bogus companies were granted access to digital logo templates and other marketing materials, without first having any qualifying products. For two of the companies, Energy Star administrators did not review the Web site prior to granting Energy Star manufacturing partner status. For all cases, Energy Star did not call our bogus firms or visit our firm’s addresses. Further, our bogus manufacturing companies received product and service solicitations stemming from partner listing on the Energy Star Web site. For example, one company received requests for large recurring orders of an external power supply adapter, based on the company being listed on the Energy Star Web site.

Who knew doing business in America was so easy?


The GAO summed up:

Our proactive testing revealed that the Energy Star program is primarily a self-certification program relying on corporate honesty and industry self-policing to protect the integrity of the Energy Star label.

In fact, the only two (of 20) submissions that were rejected -- a fan and a light blub -- got the ax because in those categories Energy Star defers to industry testing groups.


The folks at Energy Star do not exactly dispute the GAO’s characterization of the program as “relying on corporate honesty.” From their amazingly unreassuring response to the report:

One of the reasons the system has worked during the first 18 years of the program is that manufacturers have a market incentive to test competitors’ products and report violations.

In other words, approving a gas-powered alarm clock that does not exist is OK, because if it did exist sooner or later rival alarm clock makers would sue over it. God bless America.


I think the larger issue, which the GAO ignores, is that aside from its mysterious success selling large recurring orders of power supplies, mostly consumers just don’t care about the program. If it took any effort at all to get a product Energy Star certified, companies might reasonably decide it was not worth the bother. And then what would the bureaucrats who run Energy Star do?


Related reading at Bad Money Advice:

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