California Approves Nation’s 1st Computer Energy Standards

Blog updated with new numbers at 2:30pm Pacific on December 14, 2016

In a significant milestone in reducing a large power use in our homes, businesses and schools, California today approved the nation’s first energy efficiency standards for computers and monitors. And because California is home to one in eight U.S. consumers and manufacturers typically do not maintain separate inventories for different states, the savings are likely to have an impact nationally and even globally.

The standards—more than four years in the making—will be critical to helping the state meet its climate policy goals. Once in full effect, they will save Californians $370 million a year on their utility bills, and, we believe, lead to de facto national standards and far greater health, environmental and economic benefits.

Approved by the state Energy Commission, the standards will reduce the energy consumed by computers by roughly one-third once consumers replace the ones currently in use.

Desktops, which use about four times as much power as a typical laptop or notebook computer, must reduce power draw by roughly half by July 1, 2021. Notebooks, which already are more efficient, will undergo more modest energy efficiency improvements.

For desktops, the new rules are 30 percent stronger than the voluntary standards manufacturers now must meet for their computers to qualify for the ENERGY STAR® label, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program that identifies energy-efficient products for consumers. For notebooks and monitors, the California standards are similar to the current ENERGY STAR efficiency levels.

Currently, 73 percent of notebooks meet the CEC standards, but only 14 percent of monitors, and less than 10 percent of desktop computers do, reflecting the various levels of stringency of CEC's standards. The commission focused its efforts on desktop computers because they use the most energy and are lagging behind notebooks in term of energy efficiency.

The standards are very cost-effective, with the savings on the user’s electricity bills paying back for any extra costs for more efficient components in a year or less on average.

In California alone, the new standards are projected to save more than 2.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year—equivalent to annual electricity use by all the homes in San Francisco—and avoid 730,000 tons a year of climate-disrupting carbon pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants.  

If the standards become largely de facto national standards as expected, U.S. consumers will save up to $3 billion annually on their energy bills, electricity use would be cut by 20 billion kilowatt hours—equivalent to the output of seven coal-fired power plants—and carbon pollution would be reduced by 14 million metric tons per year.

The commission action’s today came after NRDC and its partners, who pressed hard for the efficiency standards, conducted a demonstration project showing that the energy use of a typical desktop computer could be cut in half using off-the-shelf technology with no impact on performance, and at negligible cost. 

NRDC earlier expressed concerns about potential loopholes in the standards, but the commission has addressed NRDC's most serious concerns. In particular, it set an expectation in its adoption resolution that it will use its product registration database to monitor the market closely, and will update the standards in case technology moves quicker than expected, for example if exemptions or allowances for features found only on a few models today become common by the time the standards go into effect and threaten to turn into major loopholes.

Some overly generous allowances and exemptions were left untouched, however, leaving room for improvement in other energy efficiency initiatives, such as future updates to the requirements manufacturers must achieve to earn the ENERGY STAR label. Until then, the commission’s commitment to monitor the market for large loopholes will provide a backstop and ensure that the promised savings are delivered.

The standards grew out of collaboration between Energy Commission, industry, consumer groups, environmental advocates, utilities and others. The commission found a compromise that achieves major energy savings and carbon reductions, and delivers significant consumer and environmental benefits, while also meeting industry’s business needs. This shows that efficiency standards work for consumer electronics, even though they have not been covered by federal standards historically. Organizations representing the tech industry support the standards and called them “ambitious but achievable,” noting that technology companies are “innovating and creating solutions to the challenges posed by climate change.”

California supports energy efficiency

The standards also represent another instance of California’s leadership on efficiency. California adopted the first energy efficiency standards in the nation with standards for refrigerators taking effect in 1978. California also enacted the nation’s first energy efficiency standards in the United States for electronic products with external power supplies, televisions and battery chargers in 2004, 2009 and 2012 respectively. The state passed landmark legislation in 2015 setting a goal of doubling efficiency savings in homes, buildings and factories by 2030.

Energy efficiency has saved Californians nearly $90 billion on their energy bills since the 1970s and slashed electricity demand enough to avoid 30 large power plants (with 11 more expected to be avoided over the next decade). It also has created tens of thousands of jobs.

Kudos to California for demonstrating again the leadership role that states can play in cutting energy waste, saving consumers money, growing our economy, and reducing pollution that harms our health and threatens our environment. CEC is considering efficiency standards for several other products and will continue to lead the way for a future that spares us the worst impacts of climate disruption. 

This could be especially important if there are attempts to block or roll back federal energy efficiency standards despite their long history of bipartisan support, backing from manufacturers, and the billions of dollars they save consumers while generating new American jobs.

About the Authors

Pierre Delforge

Director of High Tech Sector Energy Efficiency, Energy & Transportation program

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