California Blazes Ahead With Computer Efficiency Standards

California is once again leading the way, moving closer to establishing the nation’s first energy efficiency standards for computers and monitors with today’s latest proposal issued by the California Energy Commission (CEC). This new draft follows two earlier proposals and opens up a 45-day comment period, the last stage before formal adoption of the standards.  

The latest proposed standards are projected to cut 700,000 tons a year of climate-changing pollution, save consumers $370 million a year in California alone, and, pave the way for energy savings throughout the nation for a large source of energy consumption.

Computer and monitor efficiency standards are a crucial strategy for slashing energy use and emissions in California and the rest of the nation. The projected energy savings are substantial, but it’s critical to ensure there are no loopholes that could significantly reduce those savings, such as credits or exclusions for premium features that could become mainstream by the time the standards go into effect.

The proposed standards come as California has made energy efficiency a critical strategy for reducing the carbon pollution that fuels dangerous climate change. The Golden State has long stood out for its success in using efficiency to cut energy waste, reduce harmful emissions, lower utility bills, spur innovation, and promote economic growth.

These new standards, when finally adopted by the California Energy Commission, will reduce the energy consumed by computers and monitors by roughly one-third once the stock of computers and monitors in use in the state turns over.

That translates into an annual savings of more than 2.3 billion kilowatt-hours, equivalent to the electricity used to power all of the households in the city of San Jose for a year.

The standards are long overdue. Dozens of other products are subject to state or federal efficiency standards. But there have been are no standards for computers or monitors, even though they represent one of the largest energy uses in the country. The European Union, China, and Australia have established standards for computers, but not the United States.

The new rules are proposed to go into effect between one to two years after adoption, depending on the type of computer, and will then apply to virtually all computers and monitors sold in California, whether used in homes, businesses or schools, with the exception of computers assembled from parts by the user and a few niche computer types like industrial process controllers.

The standards will require desktops to reduce power draw by half when idle and establish more modest improvements for notebooks, which are already more efficient because they are designed to economize battery power. But there has been little incentive for computer makers to optimize the energy efficiency of desktops, which operate plugged in all the time. Manufacturers, after all, don’t pay the electric bill, users do.

While there has been a gradual decline in desktop sales, they still represent roughly one-third of sales and are responsible for two-thirds of computer energy use. Unfortunately, much of that electricity is wasted when the computer is not in active use.

Desktops use almost four times as much power as a typical laptop or notebook and 40 times as much as a tablet. According to a University of California, Irvine, study, office desktops sit idle 61 percent of the time they're on but still draw power from the grid.   

Many computers also consume more electricity than necessary when users are engaged in light activity like surfing the Internet, reading email, or even watching a video. Many of the improvements made to optimize idle mode will reduce energy use during these light active tasks too.

The California standards are performance-based: they set a benchmark for the machine’s overall energy use, and leave manufacturers the flexibility to choose which efficiency measures to use for their own products, an approach that fosters innovation.

NRDC has been working since 2013 with the California Energy Commission and others to establish efficiency standards for computers and monitors, including conducting demonstration projects 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. The demonstration projects showed that consumers would net a savings of more than $50 over the life of each computer from the energy savings.

If the California standards are adopted nationwide, they could save U.S. consumers about $2.2 billion annually on their electricity bills, save 20 billion kilowatt hours of electricityequivalent to the output of seven coal-fired power plants—and reduce carbon pollution by 14 million metric tons per year.

With one in eight consumers living in California, the state can influence how products are made nationwideand even globallybecause it can be too costly for manufacturers to make different models for different states, and technology innovation to achieve the California standards may eventually be rolled out worldwide.

Among those who will benefit from the new California standards are low-income households who spend a disproportionate share of their income on energy and California businesses that use the majority of desktop computers in the state.

The California standards could become final as early as November. However, the draft proposal released today is still subject to changes. NRDC and its partners will review the proposal carefully, looking for overly generous credits and exemptions for premium features. These credits and exemptions may seem innocuous today when such features are rare, but could become major loopholes that would significantly reduce expected energy savings by the time the standards go into effect.

The Golden State once again is showing the world that energy efficiency can protect public health and the environment while saving consumers money and spurring innovation.

Way to go California!

About the Authors

Pierre Delforge

Senior Scientist, Building Decarbonization, Climate & Clean Energy Program
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