Powering Down

California’s proposed energy-efficiency standards for computers could make the screen time of all Americans easier on the climate.

April 01, 2015

oskhan/Flickr

What happens in California doesn’t stay in California. Whether you live in Alaska or Florida, you can thank the laws of the Golden State for having a refrigerator that draws far less power than its predecessors and making your furniture contain flame retardants—though, that last one backfired big time, since the chemicals have turned out to be toxic. The point is that a state with lots of purchasing power can move the rest of the nation’s markets in the same direction. California is now looking at computers, with a new law poised to increase the energy efficiency of those devices that hum 24/7.

The proposed rule applies to computers, monitors, and digital signage displays (like the ones popping up all over airports and highways) and aims to slash the amount of electricity they guzzle while idle. A University of California, Irvine study of 125 office desktops found that desktops were on but not being actively used 61 percent of the time.

In California alone, where those electronics account for up to 5 percent of the state’s overall electricity, the standards would slash the $1.3 billion energy bills by $430 million a year and prevent more than 800,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the California Energy Commission, which released draft standards in early March. If they’re adopted, the state will be the first to put such a rule in place.

With more than 12 percent of the populace (read: consumers) residing there, California can influence how products sold nationwide are made. “Manufacturers prefer to have one device they can sell everywhere,” says Jon Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Talor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University. “It’s too expensive to have different products for different states.” 

The federal government also has energy-efficiency standards that apply to computers (through the Energy Star program), but they’re voluntary. Under California’s rule, desktops would see the largest improvement in energy savings. That’s because unlike laptops that need their batteries to last, these stationary machines aren’t designed to optimize power—they can suck a continuous supply from a wall outlet.

“Most energy is used—and wasted—when nobody is using desktops,” says Pierre Delforge, director of high-tech sector energy efficiency at NRDC (disclosure). Grouped together, desktop/monitor combos are among the leading energy draws, even more than TVs. Delforge says the desktop setups consume three to four times more power than laptops and going after them is a logical first step. It’s also pretty cheap.

The California Energy Commission estimates that reducing the power suck of idling desktops by 50 percent will cost manufacturers a mere $2 per machine, since adaptable energy-saving solutions for laptops already exist. As for laptops, about 70 percent of those on the market already meet the proposed standards. Delforge points out that some, such as the MacBook Pro, even reduce processor power consumption at the millisecond level, including between keystrokes.

Koomey says the regulations will push the industry to make even more advances in reducing idle power.  “Any time policy improves the efficiency of devices without affecting their function,” he says, “I think it’s a pretty clear win.”

Eric Masanet, who heads the Energy and Resource Systems Analysis Laboratory at Northwestern University, agrees that the standards are a move in the right direction. “We want to cap energy use and lower it over time,” he says. 

Environmental groups and electronics-industry representatives will meet with the California Energy Commission later this month to hash out the new rules, which will likely be finalized this year. If adopted, they’ll apply to laptops built in 2017 and desktops in 2018.

Just think, your Minecraft addiction could soon generate fewer emissions. Score!


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