California Energy Commission proposes new efficiency standards that will cut computer energy use, saving Californians $400 million annually

The California Energy Commission (CEC) today released its latest proposal for mandating more energy efficient computers and monitors. The proposal for the nation’s first mandatory standards for computers, if adopted, will be an important step toward reducing their energy use around the country and even the world.

The new proposed standards require that desktop computers reduce power draw by half when idle (with no user activity), and establishes more modest power reductions for notebooks/laptops, which already are much more efficient when operating on battery mode, but that is not always the case when they are plugged in.

Millions of computers are sold every year in California, which is home to 1 in 8 consumers in the United States. Because of the size of the California market, and to avoid the complexity of managing different supply-chains, manufacturers tend to sell the same products nationwide, and in many cases worldwide. As a result, the California standards can become de facto standards for the country (there are no national energy efficiency standards now) and ultimately for the world.

The CEC issued an initial proposal a year ago and has since hosted a public workshop, reviewed stakeholder comments, and developed this revised proposal. There will be workshops and public comment periods on it, as well as a final proposal, before the commission adopts the standards by the end of 2016.

These rules come, in part, at the urging of the Natural Resources Defense Council together with the largest California utilities (Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison). NRDC has been a leading voice in encouraging the computer industry to bring its innovation capacity to bear to save energy, money and pollution.

Computers have become ubiquitous in today’s digital economy, from homes to offices to schools, universities, and hospitals. And while the U.S. computer market is now saturated and no longer growing, computer sales are still growing rapidly worldwide due to the growth of the middle class in developing economies. This makes reducing their energy use a priority in efforts to mitigate the health, environmental, and pocketbook impacts of fossil fuel power generation.

Some laptop progress, more needed for desktops

While manufacturers of portable devices such as laptops and tablets have made great strides in maximizing the efficiency of those products, in order to make them run longer on a battery charge, desktop models and monitors have seen far less progress in energy reduction because they have access to a seemingly limitless supply of electricity from wall plugs.

Even though desktop computer sales have been declining slowly, stories of the demise of the desktop in favor of mobile alternatives are overstated. The reality is that desktops are not going away anytime soon: they remain a staple in office and retail environments and for some specific home uses such as gaming.

How much can be saved?

NRDC's and our utility partners' research showed that computer and display energy consumption could be cut by more than a third. In California alone, this will eliminate the need to generate more than 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually and save customers roughly $400 million on their utility bills. Even more importantly, the reduced demand for electricity will keep nearly 800,000 metric tons of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere each year.

If the California standards ultimately were embraced by the federal Department of Energy and applied nationwide (reducing computer and monitor energy use by 30 percent), energy savings could total 20 billion kilowatt-hours per year. The nation’s electric bill would drop by $2.2 billion, and the amount of pollution being pumped into the atmosphere would decline by 14 million metric tons of CO2 – the equivalent of 7 coal-fired power plants (500 megawatts).

No impact during active computer use

Perhaps most importantly to consumers, the new standards do not impact actual computer functionality for the typical user. The changes only apply to computers when the user is not actively engaging their machine – which is a large portion of the time.

According to a study by the University of California (UCI) Plug Load Research Center, office desktop computers are switched on 77 percent of the time, but are sitting idle 61 percent of that time while their user is doing something else, such as attending a meeting, talking with co-workers, or even just going to lunch. What the CEC standards attack is the large amount of power being drawn from the grid while the computer is doing nothing but waiting for its user to do something.

The new CEC proposal is an excellent step toward pocketbook savings, healthier communities, and cleaner skies. All the technologies required to achieve these savings already exist, they work seamlessly on mobile devices like phones and tablets, and they are cost-effective.

We trust that the highly innovative computer industry will not only meet the CEC requirements by the standards’ effective date, they will easily beat them at lower costs than anticipated.

About the Authors

Pierre Delforge

Senior Scientist, Building Decarbonization, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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