Feature Article

Energy Star Programs: Uncle Sam's Partnerships for Energy Efficiency

The federal government has had mixed success promoting energy conservation and renewables since the early 1970s. Some efforts have been great, such as appliance efficiency standards and EnergyGuide labels. Others have been less effective or even counter-productive. President Carter’s appeal to the American public to conserve energy by turning down the thermostat equated energy conservation with discomfort—a faux pas that continues to haunt the energy conservation industry. And some argue that the 40% solar tax credits were a failure because they built a false foundation for the solar water heating industry, opened the door to rampant fraud, and conveyed a subtle message that solar worked only if it was subsidized.

The current family of Energy Star™ programs, jointly promoted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), clearly fall into the winner category.

This article takes a look at these programs, what they do, and how building professionals can get on board.


The Energy Star Program began as an effort to promote energy-efficient lighting in commercial buildings. The Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Division of the EPA realized that saving energy was one of the best ways to reduce air pollution and that a voluntary “partnership-type” program with industry to promote more energy-efficient lighting would yield about the most bang for the buck. Corporate partners would benefit both by saving energy—which could improve the bottom line—and through improved public image: as a Green Lights partner, the company was doing its part to help the environment.

Green Lights, which began in 1991, has been fabulously successful, with more than 2,600 partners by April 1998 that have collectively completed lighting upgrades in more than 2.9 billion square feet (269 million square meters) of commercial space nationwide. When EPA began looking at how to replicate this success in other technology areas, they opted for a more universally recognizable name: Energy Star. Having one name for this family of programs would simplify and strengthen their educational and promotional aspects.

In 1993, EPA introduced the Energy Star Computers program. With the tremendous increase in usage of computers, EPA recognized that the cumulative power usage was becoming very significant. And much of this electricity was simply wasted, as machines were typically left on 24 hours a day. Users were convinced that turning computers on and off was bad—indeed, with early computers, cycling the hard drives on and off repeatedly probably did shorten the life—but this argument flew out the window when laptop computers arrived. EPA correctly observed that notebook computers were designed with low-power sleep modes and that powering down did not cause problems. Why not encourage a sleep mode with desktop computers, they reasoned?

So an Energy Star standard was developed requiring computers to automatically enter a sleep mode after a period of inactivity. By mandating that federal agencies could only purchase Energy Star-labeled computers, the federal government ensured rapid adoption of this standard—the federal government accounts for 5% to 10% of all computer purchases, according to Scott Thigpen, director of Energy Star Labeling Programs for EPA. Following success of the computer labeling program, other types of office equipment were added to the Energy Star program—copiers, facsimile machines, monitors, multifunction machines, printers, and scanners. Today, 70% to 80% of office equipment sold in the U.S. is Energy Star-rated.

Meanwhile, across the federal bureaucracy in Washington, the Department of Energy was also working on ideas about energy efficiency labeling. DOE was focused primarily on “white goods” and windows. In a remarkable show of good sense, EPA and DOE decided to work together in promoting energy-efficient products. All of the efficiency labeling programs were folded into Energy Star, and the two agencies cooperate in joint marketing efforts. EPA and DOE still maintain their separate areas of focus with Energy Star programs, however—DOE taking the lead with refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes washers, room air conditioners, and windows, and EPA handling all other product areas, including home electronics, residential heating equipment, and lighting, as well as the whole-building programs, addressed below. Today, the Energy Star labeling program covers some 25 different products (see table in sidebar below).

Energy Star Buildings

As the Energy Star labeling program was getting under way, attention turned to whole buildings. Programs were developed for both commercial buildings and houses, but the approaches are very different.

The Energy Star Buildings Program (covering commercial buildings) grew out of the Green Lights Program, with Green Lights now considered the first stage of the Energy Star Buildings Program. Rather than an effort to certify individual buildings as energy efficient, it is an effort to sign up corporations as Energy Star “partners.” Corporate partners agree to carry out various energy improvements with both existing and new buildings over a multi-year period. (A subset of this program, Energy Star Small Business, deals with companies that have less than 100,000 square feet of space.) More than 3 billion square feet of commercial space have so far received at least lighting upgrades—an area equivalent to all the office space in the Western third of the U.S.

EPA provides partners both with technical support to help them implement the energy- and money-saving programs and with recognition. Specific improvements to buildings that a company must carry out are tailored to that company’s particular situation and specified in a memorandum of understanding (MOU). Areas addressed include lighting, mechanical equipment, and indoor air quality; improvements to building envelopes may or may not become part of the MOU. Even companies that don’t actually own the building are able to become partners by agreeing to work with the building’s owners to achieve better energy efficiency ratings.

Energy Star Homes

The Energy Star logo is becoming an important marketing tool for new homes—evidence that the home will be inexpensive to operate and better for the environment.

Source: EPA
With houses, strategies to boost energy performance are much more consistent and measurable than with commercial buildings. The Energy Star Homes Program, launched in 1995, specifies energy consumption that is at least 30% lower than required under the 1993 Model Energy Code (MEC). This is the same performance yardstick used with the Home Energy Rating System, HERS, that produces a one-star through five-star rating for homes. To qualify as an Energy Star Home, a HERS rating of 86 is required. In most situations, this rating is sufficient to earn a HERS 5-star designation.

To date, more than 550 builders have signed up as Energy Star Home partners. These builders have so far built more than 2,100 Energy Star Homes and committed to building more than 8,000 homes over the coming 12 months, according to Energy Star Homes Program Manager Sam Rashkin. The companies signed up are projected to build roughly 18,000 homes over the next several years, and more builders are signing up all the time.

Energy Star Homes are eligible for Energy-Efficient Mortgages (EEMs) from participating lending institutions. With an EEM, a lending institution will raise the monthly mortgage payment limit that a potential home buyer can afford, because monthly energy costs will be lower.

In other words, if a lending institution determines that a home buyer can afford $1,200 per month for a conventional mortgage, that ceiling may be raised to $1,250 or $1,300 if the home being purchased is Energy Star-rated. An extra $100 per month in mortgage payment can translate into as much as $15,000 in extra purchase price for a house at current interest rates.

The Model Energy Code, which provides the yardstick for Energy Star Homes compliance, is performance-based. That is, it’s up to the builder to decide how to meet the performance requirements. Most builders opt to boost wall and ceiling insulation, improve window energy performance, and choose higher-efficiency mechanical equipment. But it’s also possible to meet the standards with relatively low insulation levels and only medium-performance windows if the home is designed to benefit from passive solar heating and natural cooling. Both heating and cooling energy are accounted for in the MEC. Any one of a number of different software packages can be used for demonstrating compliance with the performance requirements, including DOE-2 and REM-Rate. Energy Star Homes have to be blower-door tested for airtightness as part of the performance modeling, though EPA is piloting a sampling protocol for production builders in which not every home of a given model would have to be tested.

Within the next year, EPA is expected to launch an Energy Star Homes Program for existing houses, details of which are currently being developed.

Westwind Development Company in Laredo, Texas, expects to build about 200 Energy Star Homes this year. Marketing director Starr Zolton told

EBN that achieving the Energy Star performance standard was relatively easy, because the company builds with 100% structural insulated panels, or SIPs (see


Vol. 7, No. 5). Along with the higher-than-average R-value, the SIP construction meant that all the ducts were already inside the conditioned envelope—thus eliminating most of the duct leakage penalty typical in conventional houses. When asked what they get out of the program, Zolton said her company takes pride in knowing that they’re doing something to help the environment. She noted that Rashkin and his staff offered many invaluable ideas for improving energy efficiency and that working with them was extremely easy—very unlike what one would expect from a federal program.

Pulte Homes, the largest home builder in the nation, has not converted 100% to Energy Star standards by any means, but they are testing it out actively. The company has committed several hundred homes to the program in the Southwest, and they are considering building 100% Energy Star in Arizona.

On the manufactured home front, Palm Harbor Homes of Dallas has converted four of its 16 plants to build with Energy Star standards. The company, which produced nearly 7,000 homes in 1997, was already building higher-end manufactured homes than the industry standard, according to Emanuel Levy of the National Manufactured Housing Alliance (NMHA) in New York City; this allowed them to stretch a little further to meet the Energy Star standard. While the complete transition to Energy Star has so far occurred in only four of the company’s 16 plants, some changes have been implemented across-the-board. They had so much success with using mastic to seal ducts, for example, that design and engineering manager Bert Kessler has ordered the change in nearly all of their plants. Eventually Kessler expects to have 90% of their homes Energy Star-rated—all but those from two plants that produce lower-end houses. Levy told

EBN that several other manufacturers are examining the Energy Star standards, but he doesn’t expect any to join Palm Harbor right away.

Raising the Bar

That Energy Star programs are saving energy cannot be argued. Through the end of 1997, Energy Star programs have collectively saved more than $2.6 billion in energy expenditures and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 25.5 million tons (6.3 million metric tonnes carbon equivalent). About half of these savings were in 1997, and the savings will increase as more builders become partners in the Energy Star Homes program, as more corporations sign up with the Energy Star Buildings program, and as more Energy Star-labeled products make their way into the marketplace. But what about further increasing the gains by tightening the standards for participation in Energy Star—“raising the bar”?

EPA and DOE have addressed this issue. In fact, EPA has already tightened the standards for Energy Star computer monitors. Originally, the standard was 30 watts in the sleep mode, but it was quickly dropped to 15 watts for an initial sleep mode, then a further reduction to 8 watts after continued inactivity. “More and more we’re writing the specs to sunset,” Thigpen told

EBN, meaning that a given level of energy efficiency will only guarantee an Energy Star rating for a certain period of time. The Memoranda of Understanding between manufacturers and EPA or DOE are usually being written to be reopened after about two years. “We wanted to allow for the engineering cycles of manufacturers,” said Thigpen. With Energy Star TVs and VCRs, for example, which currently have standby power consumption ceilings of 3 W and 4 W respectively, a lot of manufacturers are already producing equipment that consumes just 1 W on standby. When the standard is reopened after two years, EPA will consider whether tightening the standard to 1 W on standby is realistic. Thigpen said that EPA and DOE are generally aiming for the top 25% of the industry in setting the standards for appliances.

In the Energy Star Home program, there has also been talk about someday raising the standard—a threshold of 50% savings compared with the Model Energy Code has been mentioned. But Rashkin told

EBN that the program is very sensitive to the effort builders have to go to for achieving a 30% savings over MEC. “The likelihood is that the bar will be raised, but not in the near term,” he said. Clearly, the focus at this point is on boosting participation in the program, rather than on making the standards for eligibility tighter.

Going Beyond Energy Efficiency

Some have argued that the Energy Star programs should more actively promote other health and environmental benefits in addition to energy. After all, EPA’s purview goes well beyond energy to address such issues as water quality and indoor air quality. That may be, but the enabling legislation through which the Energy Star programs are operated deals only with energy (the Energy Policy Act), so that’s all the programs will directly address. “We have a rather narrow mission as to what we can do,” said Thigpen. He explained that specifying multi-attribute benefits—such as saving water as well as energy efficiency—would make the standards more complicated, and more groups would have to weigh in on establishing those standards. EPA and DOE do recognize and try to promote those other benefits, however, such as with horizontal-axis washers. “We don’t shy away from publicizing [the water savings], but we don’t make it part of the spec,” said Thigpen.

On the Energy Star Homes side, Rashkin said that there was extensive discussion about mandating active ventilation, but they opted for simplicity and consistency with the HERS rating systems, which does not specify mechanical ventilation. He told

EBN that while active ventilation is not required in an Energy Star Home, they strongly encourage it. Indeed, the Energy Star Homes Builder Guide supplied to builder partners addresses mechanical ventilation quite thoroughly. Betsy Pettit, whose Westford, Massachusetts-based company, Building Science Corporation, has worked very actively to get several large builders (including Pulte) to sign up with the program, believes the program is a great first step, but regrets the limitations. “Thirty percent better than the 1993 Model Energy Code is a damn good goal to go after,” she said, “however, they’re missing ventilation, combustion safety, and moisture control strategies as objectives.”

What’s Ahead?

EPA and DOE hope to continue increasing participation in Energy Star programs among manufacturers, home builders, and companies that own or operate commercial buildings. They will add some new products to the Energy Star family—including water heaters and existing homes. They may tighten standards for some products, but most of the effort will probably focus on marketing Energy Star to consumers so that demand will increase and participation rise.

The Energy Star programs are an important component of the Clinton Administration’s response to the Kyoto carbon-reduction goals. Their voluntary nature makes the standards palatable to those who want less government interference—the National Association of Home Builders has endorsed the program, for example—but it also means that marketing must remain a key component. If EPA and DOE budgets for Energy Star are maintained at reasonable levels, expect this family of programs to play an increasingly important role in reducing energy consumption in our buildings and moving us toward a goal of stabilizing and then reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For more information:

Energy Star Programs

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Mail Code 6202J

401 M Street SW

Washington, DC 20460

Energy Star Hotline: 888/STAR-YES

DOE’s Hotline: 800/DOE-EREC


Published June 1, 1998

(1998, June 1). Energy Star Programs: Uncle Sam's Partnerships for Energy Efficiency. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/energy-star-programs-uncle-sams-partnerships-energy-efficiency