California Considers Computer Energy Efficiency Targets

With roughly as many computers as people in California, we spend a staggering $700 million annually on the electricity needed to power them and their monitors. Imagine how much we could save on our utility bills if they didn’t waste energy even when we’re not using them.

That’s right – many of the desktop computers in California’s homes and businesses are using nearly as much electricity when standing by with no work to perform as when playing games, watching videos, or performing business tasks. It’s as if your car gulped as much gas when stopped at the traffic light as when speeding down the highway.


Image via Fujitsu

The toll? As much as $250 million annually in lost dollars and opportunities to avoid the dirty power generation that pollutes our air and harms our health. Computers already represent about 1.5 percent of the state’s electricity consumption — enough to power half of the households in Los Angeles for a year. Nationally, they represent the second-largest energy end-use among electronic products after only televisions. Sadly, some computer models use far more energy than others to perform the same functions, up to three to four times as much in fact, depending on how they’re designed.

Standards save energy AND money

Fortunately, the California Energy Commission (CEC) is considering whether to set new efficiency standards and asked interested parties to submit proposals for 15 separate products in four categories: electronics (including computers and monitors), lighting, water appliances like faucets and toilets, and “miscellaneous” items such as hot-tubs and swimming pool pumps.

If the commission ultimately decides to set standards for all 15 as recommended by NRDC, it could save Californians $1.2 billion in utility bills, 50 billion gallons of water, enough electricity to avoid three power plants, and also eliminate the need for the natural gas needed to heat 130,000 homes annually. That doesn’t even count the health benefits from reduced pollution.

Efficient computers are just as fast, or faster

The computer standards proposed by NRDC only apply to inactive operating modes when the user is not actively using the computer (idle, sleep and off); they don’t set power limits when the user is playing a game or running business software. In addition, computers that consume lower power in idle mode often use newer circuits, or “chips”, which are faster.

We’ve also suggested some other ways to reduce computer power use in idle mode, such as new graphics architectures that use very little power when they have little or no graphics to process, more efficient power supplies that don’t waste over one-third of the power from the wall before it makes it to the computer motherboard, and a whole set of other proven technologies already employed by the most efficient computers on the market – and that can be adopted by many more.

NRDC joined with the California investor-owned utilities (PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric) in submitting a two-tiered efficiency proposal that recommends the commission initially adopt by 2015 practically the same benchmarks as the 2014 version of the coveted blue ENERGY STAR® label issued under the voluntary federal energy-savings program. The second tier would tighten the California standards by approximately 25 percent in 2017.

These levels won’t be too difficult to meet. The ENERGY STAR targets were already met last year by approximately one-fourth of the market. The percentage of qualifying computers is expected to increase rapidly by 2015 as new technologies already available in today’s most efficient computers make it to the mainstream market. Our proposed standards will accelerate and increase the adoption of efficient designs, leading to bigger utility bill savings for California consumers and businesses as soon as 2015.

In addition, our proposals for performance-based standards for both computers and monitors give manufacturers the flexibility to choose the most cost-effective options to meet them – including ones that may not have been invented!

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy is considering its own efficiency standards for computers, but the federal rulemaking process takes far longer than California’s. Where it can take up to eight or nine years to implement a federal standard, California can implement one in two to three years, in a manner more reflective of technological advances today – and tomorrow. Often other states then adopt California’s standards, leading to de facto national standards. Therefore, California’s role in setting efficiency standards in the high-tech space is critical to strong efficiency standards nationally.

Differences in energy use

Currently, desktops use four to five times as much energy as equivalent laptops, in part because, unlike portable computers, they’ve got constant access to wall sockets so there’s been less incentive to design them to conserve. New standards would change that.

As illustrated below, the four mainstream types of computers – slates/tablets, notebooks, integrated desktops, and conventional desktops – use very different amounts of energy to perform similar functions: playing games, watching videos, reading and writing email, etc. The standards would help reduce the difference.

Computer chart.jpg

Note that the chart represents comparable machines, with average configurations for each type from the ENERGY STAR product list. It is not comparing extreme gaming configurations to netbooks, for example. The desktop figure also includes the energy from a typical display in order to provide an apples-to-apples comparison with the other computer types that all have integrated monitors.

Computer monitors and signage displays

In addition to standards for monitors, NRDC is supporting the investor-owned utilities’ proposal for standards for another type of “display” product: the fast-growing category of signage displays – the TV-size displays that are being used increasingly in stores, airports, and other public spaces.

By 2022, when the entire stock of signage displays likely would have turned over, under the new standard Californians would save an additional $200 million annually while slashing carbon pollution by over 500,000 metric tons – as much as removing 130,000 cars from our roadways.

nrdcEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council. Author credit goes to Pierre Delforge.

NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.

    • Olivia Heartelly

      I never realized these things, after reading this I will let my laptop on a sleep mode every time I will become idle. Sometimes if I have something to do I’ll just left my laptop power on, on the desk or on the bed and get back to it after I finish what I’d be doing. I should now be more conservative of the proper usage of electricity. Thanks for this article, it made me realize something.