Earthjustice logoWhile we're seeing the heavy cost of our reliance on dirty fossil fuels in the Gulf of Mexico and the Senate give up on climate change legislation, there is still much that the federal government can and should be doing to promote clean energy. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in particular has a golden opportunity to help consumers save energy and save money to boot. 

This opportunity lies within a small bright yellow sticker found on many appliances on store shelves. This sticker is the EnergyGuide label, created by the FTC to inform consumers of the energy usage of appliances. This EnergyGuide label found on a host of energy-intensive appliances including clothes washers, dishwashers, refrigerators, freezers, water heaters, and air conditioners allows consumers to compare each model’s energy usage with others on the market. In doing so, it helps consumers make smart purchases that can save them hundreds of dollars in utility bills and help to curb air pollution that threatens our communities and our planet.

Right now the FTC is for the first time creating an EnergyGuide label for televisions. TVs in this country use more than 50 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year that’s enough to power all the homes in New York state for an entire year. And by the end of this year, 37 million TVs will have been shipped to the U.S. for sale in 2010 alone.

As it is now, we are unable to walk into a store or shop online and easily compare the efficiency or inefficiency - of different models of televisions. Yet the differences in energy usage are stark. Among different models of similar sizes and types of TVs, there can be as much as a three-fold difference in energy consumption. These differences can translate to hundreds of dollars in wasted energy bills over the life of the product. While the well-known “Energy Star” label helps us identify sets that are somewhat better than average, there are still major disparities hidden from the public eye. For some TV sizes, the least efficient EnergyStar-compliant model uses over 85 percent more energy than the most efficient model of the same size and type. We need EnergyGuide labels for TVs to show how each model’s efficiency stacks up against others of the same general size and type.

Unfortunately, the labels being proposed by FTC simply aren’t big enough to be read by the average shopper. Several of the options would allow labels only a little larger than a business card, with most of the print smaller than what you see in the newspaper. Consumers simply won’t be able to read these tiny labels on display models mounted high on walls, as is often the case in big box stores. And FTC is not proposing to require labeling of the TV boxes, so the consumer won’t be able to get the information there either.

The miniscule labels are in response to industry complaints that labels shouldn’t cover up any part of the screen on display models. That is the wrong stance to take when a recent survey of American consumers found that 89 percent ranked energy efficiency as a top consideration for their next TV purchase. Placing a readable efficiency label on the screen will hardly prevent consumers from getting a good view of picture quality; there will still be plenty of room left.

FTC should also reject industry claims that it’s too much trouble to put efficiency labels on the boxes that TVs are packaged in. TV-makers seem to have no problem putting the “EnergyStar” label on those boxes, so why not give us the more useful EnergyGuide label as well?

While they’re at it, the FTC commissioners need to require retailers to make sure that display models have the energy efficiency label properly shown at all times. A 2007 government investigation found that half of appliances viewed in a sample of retail stores were not properly labeled. Some had no EnergyGuide labels at all, while others had labels that weren’t in an easily viewable location.

And FTC needs to require Internet dealers to provide efficiency information as well. Many people shop online for TVs, but the proposed rule does not require web sites to provide the same comparative efficiency information required for products sold in stores.

Providing consumers with more information information that can save all Americans money and lead to a cleaner energy economy and allowing them to make smart choices should be a no-brainer for an agency charged with protecting the public interest.

David Baron is the managing attorney of the Washington, D.C., office of Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment.

This article was written for Earthjustice and was reprinted with permission.