Stay Charged this Holiday Season and Add Updated Battery Charger Standards to Your Wish List

Cell phones, laptops, tablets, cordless power drills and vacuum cleaners: all of these staples of modern life are dependent on their battery chargers to continue operating. As shoppers take advantage of Black Friday sales and prepare to stuff stockings with the latest gadgets, NRDC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are working to make chargers more energy efficient for these and other battery-powered equipment. Products' battery charger systems include the power supply (the small brick that plugs into the wall outlet), the battery itself (which is sometimes integrated into the product, like for a cell phone) and the charge control circuit (also often integrated into the product).

There are about 500 million battery chargers sold annually in the United States, in addition to the over 1 billion chargers already in use in the nation. Although most individual chargers may only consume a small amount of energy, consumption adds up quick given that the average household has about a dozen such chargers. These figures are likely to continue to grow, given the increasing number of devices with rechargeable batteries. While California and Oregon have had state-level energy efficiency standards since 2012 and 2014, respectively, the process of putting federal standards in place has been bumpy. DOE released an updated proposed standard in August 2015, which is largely equivalent to the standards in place in California and Oregon. A federal rule will help to standardize the market nationwide and ensure that consumers benefit from energy and dollar savings for years to come.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has asked for comments on its proposal, which NRDC and others have submitted, and hopes to issue a final rule in early 2016. We believe there is room to strengthen the proposed standards to ensure that the products we've come to rely on are not wasting energy.

1. Chargers for phones and other small electronics can be made more efficient. DOE's analysis found that higher efficiency levels in this product category could be achieved, while remaining cost-effective. Given the potential growth of the small charger market in the upcoming years and the significant energy savings available, NRDC recommends that the federal standards be set at an even higher - but still cost-effective - level. That could double the electricity savings from 518 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually to 1,105 million kWh annually, which is the equivalent of the energy generated from 210 wind turbines over one year.

2. Efficiency levels for battery backup systems should either be included in DOE's scope of coverage for the battery charger standard, or explicitly excluded to avoid conflicts with state standards. DOE's current proposal for battery charger standards includes battery backup systems, like uninterruptible power supplies that keep modems and security systems operating during power outages. However, the DOE proposal does not set specific efficiency levels, with the intent that the details for these systems will be included in a separate computer and backup battery system efficiency standard under development. This creates a strange "no-standard" standard, which would pre-empt California's existing standards for battery backup systems without setting new efficiency levels for at least three years. If California's standards are not allowed to stay in place, there would be an annual loss of the 683 gigawatt-hours in electricity savings they currently deliver - equivalent to consuming an extra 1.1 million barrels of oil. California is home to 1 in every 8 consumers in the United States and most manufacturers don't want to maintain separate inventories. So the energy efficiency improvements made in the backup systems in order to be legally sold in California benefit those who live in other states, too.

 

 

To close this loophole, the Department of Energy has two options:

  1. Keep battery backup systems in the battery charger standards and set appropriate efficiency levels, at least until the computer and backup battery system standards go into effect. Establishing federal standards for battery backup systems at the levels previously proposed by DOE would save an additional240 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually, on top of the 683 gigawatt-hours already saved by California standards. The additional savings would be enough to power more than 20,000 homes for a year! OR
  2. Explicitly exclude battery backup systems from the definition of battery chargers. This would let California standards remain in effect for all battery backup systems, until the federal battery charger and computer and backup battery system standards come into effect. While this option would not realize the incremental annual savings, it would still maintain California's existing standards and cut energy waste.

Whichever route is chosen, it's important that DOE act to make sure the battery backup energy savings will continue for all of us.

3. Ensure that the test procedure is as representative as possible. In some cases, manufacturers may test the energy efficiency of battery chargers with types of batteries that make it easier to meet the standards. For example, they might use the largest capacity battery a charger is capable of charging because larger batteries are typically more efficient. However, these are unlikely to be the types of batteries in devices most often used by consumers. The test procedure creates an opportunity - and an incentive - to game the system. Consumers should be confident that their battery chargers meet the federal energy efficiency standards when they use them in their daily lives, so the test procedure standard should require chargers to be tested with battery types reasonably representative of typical use.

Consumers are more reliant than ever on battery-powered devices. Remember, when our battery chargers and other devices don't waste as much energy, it reduces the need for power plants to make as much of it by burning fossil fuels that emit the carbon pollution driving climate change. Let's make sure the battery chargers that power our favorite gadgets are smart energy users now and into the future.

(Plug photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy)