The strange story of how a completely fake gas-powered clock radio got its Energy Star certification

You can't make this stuff up. And no, this is not an April Fool's joke. Except, maybe, on American taxpayers and consumers.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

If you've read my writing for long enough, you'll encounter the phrase, "you can't make this stuff up." I usually use it when describing something so incomprehensibly stupid, shocking, or infuriating that it goes beyond anything most of us could come up with when considering government idiocy.

So, when I tell you that the "Black Gold" gas-powered clock radio, along with an air cleaner made by gluing a feather duster to a space heater, and something called a geothermal heat pump all got Energy Star certifications, please note that you can't make this stuff up.

First off, each of these items doesn't exist. They were invented solely in the twisted minds of Gregory Kutz, Julia DiPonio, Robert Fletcher, John Ledford, Barbara Lewis, Vicki McClure, Jonathan Meyer, James Murphy, Andrew O’Connell, Timothy Persons, April Van Cleef, Abby Volk, and John Wilbur.

All of these fine folk work for the Government Accountability Office and all were part of a "stealth mode" project designed to bust open the Energy Star program.

Energy Star

Most of us know Energy Star as merely that logo on our monitors. But Energy Star has some serious benefits for manufacturers. First, the logo is trusted because consumers think of all Energy Star products as tested for energy efficiency. Many consumers look for the Energy Star logo and factor it into their buying decisions.

Consumers can often get tax breaks or tax credits when buying an Energy Star device -- effectively lowering the selling price. This benefits manufacturers, because they can charge full price, reap the income rewards, and the consumer's purchase is subsidized by American taxpayers.

Additionally, certain federal agencies are required to buy Energy Star products, and this, too, benefits manufacturers.

Fake products, real certification

Kutz and Company at the GAO decided to test Energy Star certications. They submitted 15 fake products to Energy Star for certification by filling out some forms online. Of the 15 they submitted, 10 were given Energy Star certifications -- even though the products didn't even exist and some were downright ridiculous (like the gas-powered alarm clock).

Two of the submitted products got rejected over technicalities. Apparently, simply not existing wasn't enough of a technicality to get rejected, but since certain product categories (ventilation fans and light bulbs) were actually required go through a third-party testing company, those products failed. Three products just didn't get any response from Energy Star at all.

The GAO gang also created four phony companies and got them Energy Star Partnership Agreements. These fake companies consisted of Web sites, cell phone numbers, and addresses at commercial mailbox stores.

Here's where it gets good. Once your company (or fake company, as the case may be) gets an Energy Star Partnership Agreement, you can just go onto the Energy Star Web site, download Energy Star logos, and legally slap them on any product you want. Want an Energy Star-certified pizza oven? Slap it on. Want an Energy Star-certified coal smelter? Slap it on.

Seriously. You can't make this stuff up.

The fix is in

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy are the agencies tasked with overseeing Energy Star. Shortly after the GAO report (PDF) came out, the EPA and DOE issued statements promising to strengthen Energy Star.

Sort of. If you make common products, things like freezers, refrigerator-freezers, clothes washers, dishwashers, water heaters and room air conditioners, your products will begin to be tested within "the next few months."

But if you happen to make something exotic, like, oh, a gas-powered alarm clock, your products might, someday, be tested. The EPA and DOE say they are "developing an expanded system that will require all products seeking the ENERGY STAR label to be tested..."

But, between now and whenever "developing" becomes "doing," go ahead. Energy Star certify your left-handed wind-shifters, your sky hooks, and your gas-powered alarm clocks.

I told you. You can't make this stuff up. And no, this is not an April Fool's joke. Except, maybe, on American taxpayers and consumers.

What's the most ridiculous thing you can think of to submit for Energy Star certification? Bonus points if it uses steam, chugs, or belches toxic fumes.

Editorial standards