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Monday, March 02, 2009

The Guardian : Article on A-G Energy Labels
This article by Ban The Bulb's founder Dr Matt Prescott was published in The Guardian on Friday 27 February 2009.

Imagine living in a world where every single in the top 40 made it to number one and every child was awarded straight As in their exams?

Although superficially attractive, it's pretty obvious that making everyone a winner would discourage hard work and stifle competition. It would also make it more difficult for music fans to find the best songs and for employers to recruit the best staff, producing many losers.

Sadly, in the world of household products and their multi-coloured A-G energy labels you do not need to imagine almost every refrigerator, freezer, washing machine, tumble drier and dishwasher being given an A-rating for its energy performance. This is the reality. Roughly 95% of dishwashers and 98% of washing machines.

The existing A-G scale for energy labels was set up 12 years ago and designed to include products developed over 30 years ago.

Today, an A-rated fridge currently uses 100 kWh/y of electricity per 100 litres of volume. This sounds good when you know that a fridge made in 1980 would have used 386 kWh/y to chill the same volume, but much less impressive when you know the best designs are now capable of using three times less electricity than an A-rated fridge.

Rather than recalibrate the A-G scale at regular intervals, every improvement in technology has been accommodated, on an ad hoc basis, by the addition of A+ and A++ categories to the top of the scale.

And because it is not unusual for 90% of a product's lifetime costs to be associated with running costs, rather than the purchase price, allowing mediocre products to sound better than is really merited invisibly costs Europe's 500 million consumers many billions of pounds in higher energy bills each year.

Depressingly, lobbying by the manufacturers seems likely to succeed in replacing the temporary A+ and A++ system with even more ambiguous A1, A2 and A3 categories above A. This insidious and confusing grade inflation appeals to manufacturers, as it allows even fourth division products to be called A-rated, rather than D-rated.

Now that there are so few products in the B, C, D, E, F and G categories, my preferred solution would be to recalibrate the clear and simple A-G scale based on the best and worst products on sale right now.

Thailand has recently rescaled its A-G categories for fridges and air conditioners and I feel that this approach makes a lot more sense than allowing manufacturers to continue comparing today's products with those they were making 10-30 years ago.

I would also like to see no more than 10%–20% of the products in each class of goods being A-rated and the best commercial products being used to define the new A-rating.

A tough A-rating standard would also mean that the remaining 80%–90% of products had to work for their market share and that every manufacturer had an incentive to adopt the most energy efficient technologies.

The trend for massive plasma screen TVs throws up another important issue.

Plasma screens use 2–3 times more energy than the traditional televisions they have replaced, yet are still being given A-ratings.

Sure, they use less energy per unit area, but this overlooks the crucial fact that their sheer size is pushing up each device's total energy use.

Significantly, a recent report by McKinsey has highlighted energy efficiency as the single most cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, yet we continue to find endless excuses for doing the very opposite or nothing.

A small think tank called Europe, Planet Earth has been trying to propose sensible legislative reform in Brussels, before some important votes take place in March, but they need far more support from the big consumer organisations and environmental groups if they are to be heard in the corridors of power.

If we cannot make energy labels simple and effective without tying ourselves up in knots, how are we going to do all of the more complicated and expensive things we love to talk about?

Just as Eurovision contestants are not entitled to chart success, the manufacturers of our household products are not entitled to have their products given top marks.

We need to stop asking manufacturers what they want to do and to start telling them what we want achieved.

Dr Matt Prescott is director of Ban the Bulb

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