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California approves first US energy efficiency standards for computers

California approves first US energy efficiency standards for computers

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California became the first state in the US to approve energy efficiency requirements for laptops, desktops, and monitors today, in a change that could ultimately impact computers’ energy efficiency across the country.

The new standards, approved by California’s Energy Commission, require most computers to draw less power while idle. Laptops are only required to see a slight reduction in power draw, since they’re already designed to be energy efficient; the commission estimates that 73 percent of shipping laptops won’t need any sort of change.

The vast majority of desktops are well below California’s standards

But only around 6 percent of desktops currently meet the commission’s standards. On average, noncompliant desktops will have to reduce their idle power draw by about 30 percent by 2019 and by about 50 percent by 2021, the commission says.

When fully implemented, the annual energy reductions are expected to equal the annual energy consumption of every home in San Francisco, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The reductions are also supposed to prevent 730,000 tons of carbon pollution that would otherwise have been emitted by power plants.

The NRDC called the standards a “a significant milestone in reducing a large power use in our homes, businesses and schools.”

It also expects the standards to have a national impact. Because California is so large — it is by far the nation’s most populous state — it’s likely that computer manufacturers will opt to sell many of these power-efficient devices across the US, rather than maintaining an entirely separate line just for California.

The tech industry is on board with reducing power use

Should that happen, the NRDC expects this change to reduce energy usage “equivalent to the output of seven coal-fired power plants,” cutting out 14 million metric tons of carbon pollution in the process.

The tech industry has actually embraced these standards and worked with the California Energy Commission to set them. During a conference call discussing the regulations, Paul Ford, environmental compliance manager at HP, called the standards “groundbreaking” and said they were “ambitious but achievable” from the tech industry’s perspective.

Intel also had a representative present on the call. And both the Information Technology Industry Council and TechNet — two tech industry lobbying groups whose members include Apple, Dell, Google, Lenovo, Microsoft, and quite a few more — were also present in support of the new standards.

California’s Energy Commission expects the standards to add $14 to the upfront cost of a computer, but it says a consumer should save $40 in energy costs over five years, which it considers to be the life of the device.

There are exemptions for more powerful PCs

In addition to laptops and desktops, standards are also being set for small servers and workstations. In all cases, energy requirements may differ depending on the inclusion of something like a graphics card, which is assumed to require more power.

The United States already has Energy Star standards for computers, but those are both voluntary and weaker than those California is implementing. The European Union, China, and Australia all have efficiency standards for computers as well, but they’re closer in strength to older Energy Star standards.

California’s energy requirements won’t impact tablets, large servers, or game consoles. The NRDC has expressed concern that there are “some overly generous” exemptions for PCs, too, noting that some exemptions may currently be uncommon but could eventually represent major parts of the market. That includes additional power allowances for features like graphics cards, as mentioned above.

The commission is also setting standards for computer monitors that will impact most of the market — only 14 percent of shipping monitors are estimated to meet the new standards. However, agency commissioner Andrew McAllister says that only “slight” changes will be needed for most monitors to meet the required efficiency.

For monitors, the commission set a power maximum while they’re turned on, while they’re idle, and while they’re turned off. The standards are effective starting in 2019 and are expected to save a consumer $30 in energy costs over seven years, with the cost of the monitor rising about $5.