California Proposes Efficiency Standards for Computers & Displays, Could Become Blueprint for the Nation


Update 3/29/15: Computer and display energy consumption in California and U.S. has been updated to reflect the estimate provided in CEC's standard proposal rather than initial estimates from EIA's 2013 Miscellaneous Electric Loads study. Individual savings for desktop computer owners were corrected earlier from $300 to $67 to reflect the fact that CEC's savings were already lifetime, not annual, savings.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) just released a groundbreaking proposal to set energy efficiency standards for computers, monitors and signage displays in California. These standards would be the first in the country for these products and could pave the way for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to implement equivalent standards nationwide.

In the meantime, they would essentially become de facto national energy-saving standards because with 38 million inhabitants, the Golden State is home to one-eighth of America's consumers. The reality is that manufacturers are unlikely to make computers that meet the standards exclusively for the California market because it's too costly to stock different models for different states.

So minimum efficiency levels set in California have an impact on devices sold across the nation, and potentially the globe. Furthermore, where California leads, other states (and sometimes even the federal government) often follow.

Why do we need the standards?

Computers -- including desktops, and laptops -- and displays, including computer monitors and signage displays, are among the largest energy consumers in our homes and offices. In California alone, they guzzle roughly 8.3 billion kilowatt hours annually according to the CEC. That's enough to power nearly all the residences in Los Angeles for an entire year.

And yet a recent study by the University of California (UCI) Plug Load Research Center found that while office desktop computers are switched on for 77 percent of the time, they're idle - as in doing no work -- for 61 percent of it while still using electricity. Although everyone should remember to power down their computers and screens when done, personal responsibility can only go so far because we don't know when we buy a computer, or use it, whether it was designed to use energy as efficiently as possible. Standards ensure a minimum efficiency level.

In addition, powering computers and displays costs Californians $1.3 billion in annual electricity bills. Implementation of the CEC's standards could cut those bills by $430 million. For the average owner of a desktop computer, this represents $67 in savings over the 5-year life of the machine.

Monitors and displays

When it comes to computer monitors and other types of displays, there can be a variance of up to six times between the most and least efficient models. The key is getting the right combination of modern technology for backlighting (using more efficient LEDs and better light filters, the layers of material that filter the backlight into color pixels on a screen); and using higher efficiency electronic components within the display.

And the great news is that all this available now. A 2013 study by a group of California investor-owned utility companies, found that it would be possible to almost halve the average energy use of a typical monitor using technologies already on the market.

What do the standards require?

Two things to note: the draft standards announced today only apply to computers when they are inactive (idle), so they will have zero impact on active performance; and second, the standards are performance-based, meaning higher performance computers, such as those designed to play video games with complex graphics, have higher energy limits. This ensures that even the highest performance machines can comply, as long as they're designed with efficiency best-practices in mind.

We'll need more time to fully analyze CEC's proposal, but at first sight it requires computers to better manage power between components when in idle mode, like Apple's "sleep between keystrokes" feature covered in my last blog. The proposal will also likely require higher efficiency power supplies, which are already widely available as a commodity component. They cost a couple dollars extra at purchase but save tens of dollars in electricity over the life of the product.

Our preliminary assessment of CEC's proposal suggests that it is strong but reasonable for desktop computers. Unfortunately, the proposal for laptops appears less strong, it can already be met by most of today's market. While laptops are already more efficient than desktops, they still use much higher power than tablets when idle. With their rapid growth, they are poised to represent the majority of computer energy use within the next few years, and warrant a stronger focus.

Doesn't California already have a standard?

Currently, there is no state (or federal) legal requirement for manufacturers to meet a minimum level of energy optimization. However, computer manufacturers can apply to be part of the national voluntary ENERGY STAR™ program setting minimum efficiency levels to be allowed to put the label on qualifying products. It acts as a great incentive for manufacturers, but does not stop them from continuing to sell some inefficient models too. Although U.S. computer manufacturers haven't provided energy usage data to the CEC, a recent study examining data from the China market - which uses similar technology to ours - showed as many as 50 percent of the machines sold there already meet the benchmark to earn the ENERGY STAR version 6 label. This indicated even stronger U.S. standards are possible to see the worst energy guzzlers forced either out of the marketplace or into significantly upping their game.

Standards lead to cleaner air

Computers and displays in the United States may consume as much as 66 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, the equivalent of 22 large cola-fired power plants pumping toxic pollution and climate-disrupting carbon emissions into our air. These new California standards could strike out as much as 800,000 metric tons of carbon in California, alone - equal to removing 170,000 cars from our roads.

So when is this happening?

The standards would not be effective until 2017 for laptops and 2018 for desktop computers. However, federal standards, which are currently under deliberation at the U.S. Department of Energy, could take eight or nine years. The good news is that California's standards could become a de facto federal specification long before DOE gets close to issuing one.

And if the California standards proposed today become national benchmarks, it could save U.S. consumers $2.6 billion on their electricity bills as well as 21 billion kilowatt hours of electricity - the equivalent output of seven coal-fired power plants (500 megawatts), or 15 million tons of carbon pollution - annually.

But first, the California Energy Commission will hold one or several workshops and take comments on the draft proposal before issuing a final version to make sure the future for our computers, screens, and electronic signage looks bright.