Editorial: Surprising Turnabout at Energy Star

March 10, 2007
March/April 2007
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2007 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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For the first time, Energy Star is decertifying an entire category of product—the programmable thermostat—because it doesn’t reliably save energy (see “Energy Star Changes Approach to Programmable Thermostats,” p. 10). Field studies in diverse climates demonstrated that homes with programmable thermostats used no less—and often more— energy than similar homes without the smart thermostats.  As a result, the programmable thermostat will no longer receive the kind of Energy Star endorsements and promotions enjoyed by efficient furnaces, TVs, and refrigerators. 

Here’s a technology that should—and does—save energy when consumers know how, and remember, to use it.  A programmable thermostat fails to deliver energy savings because the user has not been sufficiently taken into account.  Indecipherable controls, baffling commands required for programming, and inadequate feedback deter even the most sophisticated consumers from effectively using the programmable thermostat. Pity the elderly who can’t read the small print, the foreigners who can’t understand the inscrutable terms, and all of us who never learned to program a VCR.  Can one honestly expect these groups to operate a programmable thermostat effectively?

Happily, Energy Star isn’t abandoning the programmable thermostat; instead, it’s trying to adopt a new approach of endorsing a behavior rather than the specific technology.  This is a radical change for a program that has been solidly based in technical solutions to energy savings and climate change. I support this idea because policymakers must eventually address behavior if they truly want to reduce energy use.  These thermostats are a reasonable first target and a good place to prepare for bigger targets (such as cars).

At the same time, we need to rethink the programmable thermostat concept. If Energy Star decides in the future to recertify programmable thermostats, it could, for example, insist on a standard user interface (similar to what drivers expect in all cars regarding placement of the gas pedal, brake, and so on).  And why does a consumer need to set the thermostat’s clock when a chip can get the time from a radio signal broadcast throughout the country? (My wristwatch does this.)  In short, Energy Star can insist that the technology be user-friendly.

Decertification could have repercussions far beyond Energy Star. What about all the utility programs, rebates, and tax credits that (at least implicitly) based their specifications on Energy Star’s endorsement?  Will these also be modified?  Stay tuned.

Like the CFL, the programmable thermostat is a kind of standard-bearer for energy conservation.  That’s why Energy Star should be commended for acknowledging its error and trying to get it right.
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