Over the past 25 years, the federal government’s Energy Star program has become a valuable marker for all kinds of industries. Real estate agents upsell buildings that have been Energy Star-certified as energy efficient. Homeowners seek out its blue logo on electricity-guzzling appliances and devices.
But the White House has proposed eliminating funding for Energy Star and instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to “begin developing legislative options and associated groundwork for transferring ownership and implementation of Energy Star to a non-governmental entity,” according to a draft budget the energy news service E&E News obtained this week.
The cuts come as part of President Donald Trump administration’s effort to channel federal spending away from a variety of other programs and toward a $54 billion military buildup. But Energy Star helps save even more than the $57 million that the federal government spends on it each year, according to more than a dozen business executives, building consultants and energy advocates The Huffington Post interviewed this week.
Energy Star is a voluntary initiative that has a number of different aspects. It includes a certification program for appliances, electronics and lighting; an evaluation system for rating the efficiency of homes and buildings; a program that trains engineers in energy efficiency; and an award series for eco-friendly small businesses. Nine major cities and a handful of states require landlords to report energy and water efficiency per Energy Star standards as part of their building codes.
Energy Star has slashed $430 billion off utility bills and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7 billion tons since its inception, according to 2015 estimates.
“It’s such a win for our economy and such a huge return on investment of federal dollars,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy. “It’s penny wise and pound foolish to look at reducing funding, let alone defunding the program or stopping it completely.”
For builders, Energy Star provides a standard to measure the energy efficiency of their properties. For landlords and building managers, free Portfolio Manager software launched under the initiative helps monitor energy and water use and shave hundreds off utility bills. For engineers, the program offers guidelines on indoor lighting, plumbing, ventilation, heating and cooling, ensuring that their structures waste as little electricity, heating gas and water as possible.
“There are three stages of a project: Where are you now? Where do you want to be? And what steps do you have to take to get there?” said Glenn Tanner, principal engineer at a Torrance, California-based green engineering design firm called MEP. “Energy Star’s benchmark is the first way to find out where you are. You can’t make improvements if you haven’t measured where you are.”
“It’s penny wise and pound foolish to look at reducing funding, let alone defunding the program or stopping it completely.”
Having a single national Energy Star standard is also helpful.
“You can compare your building in New York to somebody else’s building in Houston to another in Chicago or Detroit and know where you stand,” said Jim Newman, who runs a green building consultancy out his home in the Detroit area.
Real estate agents also like Energy Star because they can advertise certified houses ― which are 30 percent more efficient than average homes ― on their eco-friendly and cost-saving merits. And as banks remain wary of lending to homebuyers with poor credit a decade after the real estate bubble burst, energy-efficient homes provide some potential reprieve. People who live in more efficient homes are 32 percent less likely to default on their mortgages, according to a 2013 study, in part because up to 15 percent of household spending can end up paying for utilities.
“If you’re talking about affordable housing and vulnerable populations out there, these kinds of things make a huge difference,” said Dan Teague, vice president of business development at the Wegowise, a software company that helps building owners track utility and water data using Energy Star benchmarks. “It can be the difference between paying rent and paying utilities.”
Energy Star has become a well-known brand since it was first created in 1992. A 2015 survey by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, a utility-backed group, found that 83 percent of American households recognized the brand without visual aid. The ubiquity of Energy Star has made it easier for people to identify energy-efficient appliances.
EPA spokeswoman Julia Valentine declined to comment “at this early stage in the process.”
That isn’t to say the program doesn’t have faults. The certification process is susceptible to fraud, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.
GAO’s investigators were able to obtain certifications for 15 bogus products ― including a “geothermal heat pump” and a “gas-powered alarm clock” described as being “the size of a small generator.” Soon after, Energy Star began requiring third-party certification of energy savings on appliances, a rule that rankled manufacturers who said it placed an undue burden on them. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers criticized the EPA last year for issuing stricter qualifications for Energy Star refrigerators and freezers than the Department of Energy, which provides $7 million of the program’s budget. The EPA pays for the other $50 million.
The program has endured years of attacks by ring-wing commentators and conspiracy peddlers who depict Energy Star as yet another weapon in the arsenal of environmental culture war bogeymen.
Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh waged what became known as the “light bulb wars” after Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, aimed at increasing energy efficiency and reducing use of fossil fuels. Conservative pundits falsely accused lawmakers of seeking to ban incandescent bulbs to bolster LED lighting, which uses 75 percent less energy and lasts up to 25 times longer. Beck’s rancor on the issue reached such a pitch that his website The Blaze at one point addressed rumors that the media mogul threatened to fire employees who bought energy-saving bulbs or biodegradable utensils.
Consumer demand ultimately anointed energy-saving lighting as the victor. The global LED industry is forecast to grow to $33.1 billion in 2017 from $29.6 billion the previous year, with 52 percent of the market, according to a report by the research firm TrendForce. Yet conservative pundits continue to pooh-pooh renewable fuels and energy-saving technology by condemning what they call government attempts to “pick winners and losers.”
“There is a philosophy that consumers will make the right decision on their own accord; if they’re really going to save money, they’ll buy efficient products,” Callahan said. “But there’s a lack of information out there that acts as a market disturbance.”
There are alternatives. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers offers certification in building design, energy assessment and facility management, but charges annual membership fees. Another nonprofit called Architecture 2030 provides green design and engineering training and software as well as public-private partnership programs.
But both initiatives lack the breadth or international name recognition of Energy Star. Private alternatives also lack the access to international markets provided by Energy Star’s partnerships with regulators in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, Taiwan, the European Union and the European Free Trade Association, which includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
“There are other things that can take its place, but it’s going to take a while,” Newman said. “And they’re going to be more expensive to do.”
Privatizing Energy Star could kneecap cities’ efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. Residential and commercial buildings account for about 39 percent of the U.S. carbon footprint, making it the largest source of planet-warming gases. Metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Minneapolis and New York City require landlords to benchmark their buildings to Energy Star standards as a means of reducing emissions.
“Despite a sea of competition among private groups that want to rate your building, people all fall back on the government one because they trust is and, at the moment, it’s free,” said Christopher Cayten, a principal at the New York-based environmental consultancy CodeGreen Solutions. “That means it’s free to comply with these laws to benchmark buildings.”
“If a fee is put in place to use this tool, people may have to revisit even having benchmark requirements in cities,” he added. “Cities can’t force you to use a private tool.”
That may be a low priority for the White House. Trump pledged to bolster U.S. economic growth by macheteing environmental regulations he blames for strangling fossil fuel industries and hampering manufacturing. Earlier this month, he proposed cutting the EPA budget by 20 percent and pink-slipping 1 in 5 employees, essentially crippling its enforcement division.
Despite irrefutable evidence, the president has repeatedly smeared climate science, suggesting that the idea of humans contributing to global warming is “a hoax.” As one of its first acts under the new administration, the EPA halted a request for oil and gas drillers to report emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 40 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
“When you save energy, in addition to saving consumers’ money, you also benefit the environment and create jobs,” said Lowell Ungar, senior policy adviser at the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “In the end, this is a program to help people save money. That’s why it’s so popular. It’s about helping real people.”
This article was updated with a comment from the EPA.