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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

If you have a blue sticker on your washing machine or refrigerator or dishwasher, it's supposed to symbolize an energy efficient appliance. But so-called energy stars may not mean quite what you think. This week, the Energy Department's inspector general raised doubts about the reliability of those ratings.

As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren explains, it's something consumer advocates have been questioning for years.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Energy Star is designed to lure Americans to buy green by promising money savings, like this Lowe's commercial does.

(Soundbite of Lowe's Commercial)

Unidentified Man #1: With an Energy Star washing machine, you'll save roughly enough for 16 rounds of golf, 94 movie tickets or 3,382 text messages.

SHOGREN: The government estimates that last year the program helped Americans cut about as much greenhouse gas pollution as 29 million cars pump out. More than 60 different kinds of products from air conditioners to light bulbs can get energy stars. So, how do they qualify? Well, the specifics vary, but generally a product should be in the top 25 percent in terms of energy efficiency.

(Soundbite of refrigerators)

SHOGREN: It's not always that straightforward.

Mr. MARK CONNELLY (Deputy Technical Director, Consumers Union): We test as many as 24 to 32 refrigerators at a time.

SHOGREN: Mark Connelly is the deputy technical director of Consumers Union, which puts out Consumer Reports. Connelly took me to a hallway full of refrigerators at his organization's labs in Yonkers, New York.

Mr. CONNELLY: Unfortunately, when you go to buy a refrigerator and you see this product is Energy Star, it's only an Energy Star within a French-door refrigerator with through-the-door ice and water. So, the top mount refrigerator here will use a heck of a lot less energy than that one, even though, that one's Energy Star.

SHOGREN: French-door and side-by-side models are the SUVs of refrigerators. But they can get energy stars because of the way the government rates refrigerator. French-door, side-by-side, top freezer and bottom freezer fridges each has its own criteria.

Mr. CONNELLY: The government has put these things on different yardsticks.

SHOGREN: Connelly says another problem with Energy Star is the government doesn't tighten its standards quickly enough. A couple years ago, 90 percent of dishwashers on the market had energy stars. Nowadays, most TVs get the blue label.

Mr. DAVID KATZMAIER (CNET): They need to just be a little bit more strict with what TVs are Energy Star and which aren't.

SHOGREN: That's David Katzmaier. He tests televisions for CNET, an online electronics publication. Last year, he was surprised to see that some big plasma televisions were getting energy stars. When he tested those televisions himself, the picture seemed awfully dim.

Mr. KATZMAIER: You get that kind of washed-out look to the picture and that was definitely a tip-off to us.

SHOGREN: Turns out, a lot of the energy that televisions use goes to make them bright. As with all Energy Star products, the government lets the manufacturers do their own testing. And Katzmaier says manufacturers were setting the default modes on televisions unusually dim to qualify for energy stars.

Mr. KATZMAIER: I think that, you know, some people might turn up the brightness on their televisions and all of a sudden your TV isn't Energy Star-compliant anymore and you're really not saving any power.

SHOGREN: Katzmaier says even if the new big-screen TV you have your eye on has an energy star, it probably uses more electricity than your old box television. Super-sized TVs are just one reason that even with hundreds of millions of Energy Star products in American homes, average families are using more electricity than ever. People are plugging in more appliances and electronics all the time. Energy Star wasn't designed to attack that problem.

The Energy Department is already responding to the criticisms. It's setting stricter requirements for testing products. The department has already announced it will make it harder for those large-screen TVs to earn the label. And it's planning to create an energy superstar program to identify the top five percent of products.

(Soundbite of Commercial)

Unidentified Woman: Global warming is a problem.

Unidentified Man #2: Sound the alarm.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #3: Save energy with Energy Star.

SHOGREN: And it's just signed up Dr. Seuss' most ardent environmentalist, the Lorax, to encourage the next generation to help save the planet.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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