As the federal government braces for the administration’s so-called “skinny budget,” expected late next week, rumors of what, exactly, will be cut keep circulating. Among the programs reported to be on the Trump administration’s chopping block: the popular, cheap, effective Energy Star consumer labeling program from the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The United States spends about $57 million a year on the Energy Star efficiency standards program. Under Energy Star, scientists create guidelines and test new consumer goods for efficiency — new washing machines, for instance. The programs most recently launched standard is for electric vehicle chargers, which gives some sense of how far-ranging and modern this program is.
It’s also a huge money-saver. Since it was established in the 1990s, the Energy Star program has saved U.S. consumers some $360 billion, mostly in electricity and water costs. According to a program report, consumers and business saved $31.5 billion in 2014 alone, while costs were about $57 million. That puts the return on investment for taxpayers at about 550 to 1.
The concept is simple: When someone goes to buy a washing machine (or drier, or blender, or light bulb), she looks at a number of factors — the price, the capacity, the size, maybe the brand name — and picks the one that is the cheapest while meeting her needs. But it’s not always obvious what the ownership cost of a washing machine is. How much water does it use? How much electricity? In other words: How efficient is it? The Energy Star program (which has a whopping 85 percent brand recognition rate in the United States) offers that valuable information. Pay a little more up front, but pay less over the lifecycle of the appliance.
And largely because of that high recognition rate, the program also incentivizes manufacturers to develop and offer more efficient products. Energy Star sells.
But maybe not for long. President Trump reportedly aims to kill the program entirely — perhaps privatizing it.
“I think the most foolish aspect of trying to do away with this kind of program is to ignore the economic impacts,” Kateri Callahan, executive director of the Alliance to Save Energy, told ThinkProgress. “To ignore the savings that accrue from this, the jobs that are created, the innovation that comes from public-private partnership programs… The return on that is just enormous.”
The administration has indicated that cuts like these — as well as cuts to satellite programs within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that help protect Americans from extreme weather events, cuts to the Justice Department’s environmental program, and cuts to low income housing programs — are in service to bulking up the Department of Defense budget.
“I think more than anything it is hunting for money under every rock,” Callahan said. “There are some programs that should be sacrosanct.”
The problem here is that many government programs are cost-effective. That’s sort of the point of government, actually: to bring people together in service to their collective needs — whether those needs are self-defense, clean air and water, or simply knowing what they are buying.
But there is something almost absurd about cutting a $50 million per year program that has a mathematical return on investment for taxpayers to add to the Defense Department’s $573 billion budget. The same goes for cutting weatherization programs that reduce homeowners’ costs by vastly more than taxpayers invest, or for cutting tax incentives on electric cars and solar panels.
The Trump administration’s cuts are going to hit Americans where they like it the least: in their pocketbooks. On the plus side, if the Energy Star program disappears, we won’t even know what we’ve lost.