Consumer Reports finds ways to make U.S. global energy leader

YONKERS, N.Y. — U.S. energy consumption per capita was at its lowest level in 41 years last year. Americans have bought more energy efficient light bulbs and appliances, run their air conditioners less and even line dry their clothes. So why does the U.S. use more energy than most other countries? Consumer Reports surveyed more than 1,500 American homeowners about their experiences of becoming more energy efficient over the past 12 months — turns out that it's harder than it should be.

While homeowners continue to increase their energy efficient choices, the government needs to do better. Complicated and confusing rebate programs, coupled with slack Energy Star standards and outdated testing, have squandered potential energy savings. Consumer Reports laid out key steps that are necessary to help make the U.S. a global leader in energy efficiency and conservation.

Energy Star standards need to be strengthened. It's good news that products have become more energy efficient, but when too many products in a category qualify for Energy Star, it becomes harder, not easier for consumers to identify truly exceptional products. The Environmental Protection Agency should keep its focus on toughening Energy Star qualifications. When more than 35% of all products sold in any category qualify, that shows that the bar needs to be raised.

Bring testing into the 21st century. Outdated testing procedures mean that newer features can go unchecked. Consumer Reports found appliances that perform differently under Department of Energy test conditions than they would in a home. To remain useful, testing procedures must be continually updated and strengthened to keep up with product changes. The current process takes too long, allowing for new features and technologies to appear that are not tested.

Take the hassle out of incentives. Over the past 12 months, 91% of all homeowners made a purchase or improvement that qualified for a government rebate or tax credit, but only one-quarter of homeowners said they took advantage of an incentive program. The top reason for not participating was because they wrongly thought their purchases didn't qualify. Around half of homeowners who made a qualifying purchase but didn't participate reported this mistaken belief.

Other prominent reasons were complicated and confusing rules and concern that getting paid was too much of a hassle. Many people also wrongly thought their purchases didn't qualify. In addition almost a quarter of poll respondents who qualified and didn't apply explained that the incentives were too small. Qualifying homeowners were least likely to participate in the cash-for-appliances state rebate program, in part because of the incentive amount. States offering more generous appliance rebates have had more success.

Turn up the heat on the industry. Stiffer fines must be levied against manufacturers that don't play by the energy-efficient rules. When a violation occurs, it's important that it is widely publicized so that consumers are informed.

“The Energy Star program has saved people billions in utility bills, but we continue to find ways that it could deliver even greater savings,” said Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports. “For example, third-party testing is good, but if the test procedures are outdated, too easy, or don't reflect real-world use, they'll only confirm 'savings' the consumer is unlikely to see.”

Americans are committed to boosting their home's energy efficiencies. Forty four percent have purchased an Energy Star appliance, while 23% have upgraded to a more energy-efficient heating or cooling system. The overwhelming reason Americans are taking action is to lower energy costs (77%). But only a third (36%) are upgrading to take advantage of a rebate or credit. Consumer Reports also recommends programming the thermostat for yearly savings of $200. Paying a contractor to seal and insulate ducts, especially in unconditioned spaces, can yield yearly savings of $400.

The full report is available in the October issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org. Other energy-conscious products are rated including water heaters and space heaters.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey using a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. 1,536 interviews were completed among adults aged 18+ who own their dwelling. Interviewing took place over June 17-21, 2010. The sampling error is +/- 2.6 percentage points at a 95% confidence level.