New regulations could make computers more energy efficient

August 17, 2016

Long seen as a leader in energy efficiency policy in the U.S., California has its sights set on transforming yet another previously untouched industry. According to the San Diego Tribune, the California Energy Commission is considering a set of guidelines that would curb energy usage in computers, specifically targeting inefficient desktop machines that burn as much energy annually as an electric oven.

Meeting the new regulations would add an estimated $18 to the cost of an individual computer, but the California Energy Commission (CEC) says consumers and businesses will save far more than that in the long term. Over a computer's five-year lifespan, the agency predicts efficiency improvements would save as much as $75 in energy costs. 

While these regulations have been under development for years, these reports come just weeks after a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study shined a spotlight onto just how much energy computers waste sitting idle. As many as 300 million computers (that's almost one for every person in the U.S.) spend more than half their time every day turned on but not in use, the report found. Plugged directly into the wall with no check on how much energy they're able to pull, computers go through $10 billion worth of energy every year – the equivalent of 30 power plants emitting 65 million metric tons of CO2. 

"Desktop computers use about 45 times as much energy as a laptop because they are not optimized for energy efficiency," Pierre Delforge, director of high-tech sector energy efficiency at the NRDC, told the Tribune. "They're plugged in all the time and have access to virtually unlimited power from the wall and don't have capacity constraints."

Just a 30 percent efficiency increase nationwide could save consumers $3 billion annually, according to the report, eliminating energy consumption equal to all of the households in Chicago and Los Angeles combined. 

Computers often drain power even when they're not being used. Computers often drain power even when they're not being used.

A solution taking shape
While consensus around a final version of the regulations has not yet been reached, the CEC proposed a draft of its guidelines earlier this year. According to the draft, the main features of the regulations would be:

  • Inclusion of laptops, desktops and computer monitors.
  • Improved power management when devices are not in use. 
  • Alignment with existing international and federal ENERGY STAR® specifications.

The draft was met with opposition from several computer and business groups who believed progress could be made through voluntary agreements rather than mandated regulations. The two sides are reportedly continuing to work together to come up with a final rule that achieves savings while taking into account the computer industry's concerns over implementing the regulations. 

As Tribune writer Rob Nokolexski pointed out, the personal computer industry was born here in California, making it only fitting that the Golden State would be the one to usher in these changes 40 years later.