New Computer Energy Use Studies Make Case for Strong Efficiency Standards in California

Two new studies provide critical information on the energy consumption of computers: A much larger share of the market than previously expected already achieves the ENERGY STAR efficiency benchmark, which means that energy-savings standards can be set higher to benefit consumers.

These reports are being released just in time to inform the California Energy Commission’s (CEC) proposal for energy efficiency standards for computers.  Because the Golden State is home to one in every eight U.S. consumers, the minimum efficiency levels set in California will have an impact on the energy use of computers sold across the nation.

In a nutshell, the studies find that a much larger share of computers already meet the ENERGY STAR™ “version 6” efficiency levels than previously thought. (ENERGY STAR is a voluntary federal labeling program that helps consumers get the most for their energy money!) The report findings suggest that requiring computers to be as energy efficient as, or more efficient than ENERGY STAR version 6 would be very reasonable, especially because CEC standards are projected to go into effect in 2017, four years after the data used in the studies was collected, by which point further efficiency gains are expected as computer technology continues to become more efficient.

Computers—including desktops, “All-in-ones” like Apple’s iMac, and notebooks (aka laptops)—are one of the largest energy consumers among electronics in our homes, second only to TVs. They also represent a large source of energy consumption in offices throughout the country. A new study released just last week already indicated that computers spent more time turned on than previously estimated. Altogether, computers are estimated to consume more than 4 billion kilowatt-hours annually in California, enough electricity to power all the households in the cities of San Francisco and San Jose for one year. Reducing the energy wasted by inefficient models could save roughly one-third of that, avoiding the need for a medium-sized power plant, and the toxic pollution and carbon emissions it generates.  Nationally, spillover benefits from the California standards could be disproportionately larger as most states rely on dirtier power sources than California.

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More on the studies

The studies were developed by the Collaborative Labeling and Appliance Standards Program (CLASP), with support from NRDC, to inform the CEC’s rulemaking on computers. They sought to address two major gaps in available data on computer energy use:

  1. The lack of comprehensive data on computer energy consumption in the California (or U.S.) markets. The largest dataset, from the ENERGY STAR-qualified product list, only contains information on the portion of the market that qualifies for ENERGY STAR.
  2. The lack of energy data on gaming computers. This market segment is important because it includes some of the highest-performance computers in the market, and the CEC typically is very careful to set “performance-based” standards that even the highest-performance products can meet, providing that they are designed and configured with energy efficiency in mind.

Unexpected Findings

China study--The first study focused on the computer market in China, taking advantage of the fact that China requires manufacturers to register all computers sold in the country and their energy consumption in an online database. The study found large overlaps between computer models sold in China and in the United States, indicating the China market is relatively comparable to the U.S. market. The analysis of the database reveals that approximately 50 percent of the Chinese market already met ENERGY STAR version 6 energy levels as of summer 2013. This suggests that ENERGY STAR v6 is not too stringent for CEC standards, despite coming into effect only last June. This finding supports a proposal by NRDC and the California investor-owned utilities (IOUs) to set computer efficiency standards for 2017 that are more stringent than ENERGY STAR v6.

Gaming computer study--The second study sought to assess the energy use of high-performance gaming computers, which use powerful processors and lots of memory to play graphics-intensive video games. It found that even the highest-performance gaming computers currently on the market either meet, or are very close to meeting ENERGY STAR v6 energy levels, indicating that standards similar or more stringent than ENERGY STAR v6 would not impact the availability of the highest-performance gaming computers in California. They would only ensure that these high-performance computers are not designed with inefficient power-supplies and other outdated components that generate a lot of heat, require loud fans, and needlessly increase the owner’s utility bill. It is important to remember that the standards proposed by NRDC and the IOUs only apply to the “idle” state of computers, with only the desktop screen showing, no applications loaded, and no windows open. There is no reason why any modern computer should be using a lot of power in that mode, especially with current processor and graphics technologies that are very effective at ramping down power when not doing any work.

The importance of comprehensive data

To set standards that eliminate the most inefficient models from the market, while not impacting models that use commonly available efficiency technology, it is critical to use comprehensive and recent market data on computer energy use. Ideally this data would come from manufacturers who have the most comprehensive and recent data available. Unfortunately, the industry has not provided this data to the CEC, which makes the CLASP studies critical in the commission’s rulemaking.

Why set standards if ENERGY STAR already encourages computers to become more energy efficient?  ENERGY STAR is a great program that provides an incentive to manufacturers to make some of their products more efficient, but not all. ENERGY STAR pulls the top of the market toward higher efficiency, but does nothing to push the bottom, most wasteful models. Efficiency standards are necessary to remove the most inefficient models from the market, those that are designed with inefficient power supplies; outdated CPUs (central processing units) and GPUs (graphics processing units) that guzzle far more energy than current technology; and power optimization settings disabled.

An inefficient power supply may save the manufacturer pennies, but it costs users 10 times more in increased utility bills. Standards are necessary to prevent a race to the bottom on energy efficiency -- they set a level-playing field for manufacturers to compete without saddling consumers with the cost of energy waste.

CEC is due to release its draft standards later this month, for review and discussion by industry and efficiency advocates in a workshop in December. NRDC urges CEC to consider the data from these CLASP studies and develop its proposal accordingly.

About the Authors

Pierre Delforge

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

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