Ensuring Computer Standards Deliver on Promised Savings

California deserves high praise for taking a big step toward fighting climate change by proposing the nation’s first energy efficiency standards for computers and monitors. But for the groundbreaking rules to achieve their full energy-saving potential, the state needs to account for evolving technologies in the rapidly changing world of computer and monitor technology.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) held a public meeting on October 10 to present its proposal and seek public input. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) commented that the standards are headed in the right direction, but as the commission works to finalize the standards, it should minimize potential loopholes, ensuring that the efficiency rules also apply to computers and monitors with features that may not be all that common now but could become widespread in a few years. 

The Commission's challenge is to ensure that the standards actually deliver on their promised health, financial, and environmental benefits. 

The standards are projected to cut about 730,000 tons of planet-warming carbon pollution from power plants annually while offering the additional benefit of saving California consumers and businesses $370 million a year on their utility bills. The projected annual energy savings are equivalent to the electricity used in a year to power all of the homes in San Francisco.

The standards will benefit consumers in other states, too, as a result of more energy-efficient computers and monitors coming onto the market (because actions taken by California, home to one in eight U.S. consumers, significantly influence manufacturer decisions for the entire country). They will especially benefit low-income households who spend a disproportionate share of their income on energy bills and may be using the cheapest, least efficient models on the market.

The performance-based, technology-neutral standards will reduce the energy consumed by computers and monitors by roughly one-third once the stock now in use in California turns over, and could save up to $3 billion in annual energy bills nationwide if they became de facto national standards.

NRDC and its partners have been active in advocating for strong standards since the beginning of the CEC process. This included developing a super-efficient prototype showing that computer energy use could be cut in half using off-the-shelf technology with no impact on performance, and at negligible cost. The efficiency standards process was initiated after studies showed computers waste significant amounts of power (and money) when idle. One study found that office desktop computers are turned on 77 percent of the time, but inactive 61 percent of that time.

The standards will require desktop computers-which typically use almost four times as much power as a laptop or notebook and 40 times as much as a tablet, and are responsible for two-thirds of computer energy use--to reduce power draw by half when idle. They would establish more modest improvements for notebooks. Under the commission’s latest proposal, the first phase of the rules would take effect in January 2019 for desktop and notebook computers. A second phase would become effective in July 2021.

Concerns about possible loopholes

But some refinements are necessary to ensure that the standards actually deliver on their promised energy savings, pollution cuts, and financial benefits.

Of concern are seemingly innocuous exemptions and overly generous allowances provided for features that may represent a small share of the market today. Allowances give computers with higher performance capability or specific functions extra energy budget to account for capabilities, helping make the standards performance-based. But when given to emerging features, they can become major loopholes that would significantly reduce expected energy savings, if the features become much more widespread once the standards go into effect and they have been optimized to no longer draw significant extra power by then.

For example, CEC’s proposal provides an extra allowance for gaming monitors that support a variable refresh rate, a feature that provides smoother motion scenes. Only a small number of models on the market today have the feature and some of them, but not all, use a little more energy. The feature is gaining popularity and could well become a common feature on monitors in the next few years. By that time, manufacturers will have had plenty of time to optimize their designs and integrate the features onto existing chips so that they draw little or no additional power. Continuing to give them a large allowance would create a loophole in the standards, through which much of the promised energy savings from the standards could evaporate.

In a letter to CEC, NRDC and several other groups working together as part of the California Delivers coalition are urging the California Energy Commission to minimize long-term exemptions and allowances and include an “off-ramp” mechanism to rapidly close any growing loophole that jeopardizes a significant amount of energy savings.

Under that mechanism, the commission should monitor the market and adjust its standards to phase out exemptions and allowances within a year, giving industry time to meet the rules while avoiding a major loss in savings due to loopholes.

The new proposed standards represent one of the most cost-effective energy efficiency measures, and are important to help California meets its climate goals. They will drive innovation and save consumers money while boosting the state’s economy. And they give manufacturers time and flexibility to achieve the energy savings.

The commission is now accepting written public comments until October 24, and then it will decide whether to revise its proposal before considering it for adoption by the end of the year.

We urge the California Energy Commission to make sure the standards deliver on the promised savings and don’t miss an opportunity to reduce energy waste, cut harmful pollution, and save Californians money.

About the Authors

Pierre Delforge

Senior Scientist, Building Decarbonization, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.