Energy Efficiency

Michael Kanellos: October 7, 2009

Next Week: A Huge Fight Over TV

The CEC wants to put energy efficiency standards on TVs. The manufacturers say the regulations will stall innovation and are out of date.

CHIBA, Japan -- The California Energy Commission is going to hold a public hearing on standards for curbing power consumption in televisions in Sacramento on October 13.

It's going to be a doozy.

Under the rules the CEC has proposed, TVs with smaller screens would have to be roughly one-third more energy efficient by 2011, and 49 percent more efficient by 2013. The rules would apply to new TVs sold in the state, not existing models (see California Wants to Cut TV Power by 49% in Four Years). The proposed efficiency standards focus on TVs with a screen area less than or equal to 1,400 square inches (58 inches or less).

Although manufacturers often concede that that they will likely be able to meet those restrictions, the industry recoils from the idea that it needs to be regulated. Power consumption has been dropping in TVs at a fairly rapid rate. TVs, DVRs and the other things attached to TVs, manufacturers add, only account for around 5 percent to 6 percent of home energy use. The CEC argues it is closer to 10 percent.

"If your inclination is to regulate, you are going to regulate," said Peter Fannon, vice president of technology, policy and government regulation from Panasonic, who will be at the hearing.  "There is absolutely no need for this regulation. All of their arguments are based on old data."

In some ways, it looks like a battle of wills divided by a cultural chasm. On one side you have the CEC, a powerful agency that has made history in reducing energy consumption. Appliance regulations passed in the 1970s, over the objection of manufacturers, drastically reduced the power consumption of refrigerators and other devices. Refrigerators consume half and less than old models and hold far more food. Remember how your dryer surface used to be really hot way back when? Better insulation has made it relatively cool.

Partly as a result, electricity consumption on a per capita level in California has remained flat since the mid-1970s. In the rest of the country, it has risen by 40 percent.  

Big utilities and groups like the National Resources Defense Council stand behind the CEC. Vizio, the rare large TV maker with headquarters in the U.S., also is in the camp.

On the other side sit the manufacturers and the entertainment industry who argue that there are much larger power malefactors. Besides, people like watching TV. The Los Angeles Times wrote an oft-read editorial against the regulations recently.

"[The CEC proposals] don't seem to jibe with reality," said Gary Merson, a blogger who runs HD Guru and has tested several sets for energy consumption. "Maybe we should all have four cubic foot refrigerators while we are at it and eat mini hot dogs."

Both sides have been actively calling reporters to show up. It's a bit unusual for a public hearing.

The numbers do give the manufacturers a good argument. The most popular large CRT TV ever, a 1991 36-inch RCA, consumed about 310 watts. In 2002, Sony sold a 36-inch CRT screen that consumed 200 watts, according to Fannon.

Panasonic's current lineup of plasma TVs range in power consumption from 293 watts to a somewhat lowly 142 watts for an energy-efficient 42-inch 1080p high-definition plasma. In the last two years, power consumption has dropped 30 percent annually, a result of even a more targeted focus on energy consumption, Fannon said.  

At Ceatec, the large Japanese electronics fair taking place in Chiba this week, Hitachi showed off a prototype LCD that measured 32-inches across and consumed 32 watts while playing programs. Manufacturers like Hitachi and Sony want to integrate a feature that lets a TV go into 10 watt sleep mode when it detects that people have left the room or fallen asleep.

"We're pretty confident we can meet the first [2011] level," Fannon said. But as for the next level? Those recent whopper gains may be tough to repeat, although advances in electronics should be able to push it lower, Fannon said. "You can't legislate science," he said.

But back to the CEC. TVs don't exist in isolation. They are linked to set-top boxes and DVRs. Plasmas used to be big energy hogs too. What's to keep manufacturers from moving from energy consumption to bigger and bigger screens?

"On average, CRTs use 0.23-watts per square inch of the screen, LCDs use 0.27-watts per square inch, and plasmas use 0.36-watts per square inch," the CEC states.

Besides, what's the big deal: Over 1,000 TVs already meet the 2011 standard.

Back to the manufacturers. Yes, those devices consume power, but regulation could hamper further innovation that could reduce power. Do PCs that are persistently connected to the Internet draw more power? They can, but a PC-TV, or a TV with a built-in DVR can eliminate the need for having three, four or more plugged-in boxes. The individual item might consume more power but reduce aggregate power. If the regulations don't contemplate that, it could lead to higher levels of consumption.

The 32-watt Hitachi, for instance, uses hot cathode fluorescent bulbs. They consume a lot of power. But the bulb allows Hitachi to reduce the number of lights in a TV from around ten to two. If the regulations are un-artfully drafted, something like that could be scotched.  

Fannon further adds that the NDRC and others aren't working with real numbers.

"The PG&E study is flawed," he said, citing a PG&E study that stated plasmas consume more power than CRTs.

Merson further added that manufacturers could resort to trying to game the system. Can you make an energy-efficient PC without trouble now? Sure. You just turn down the lights inside of it, but few people would want to buy it or use it energy efficient mode. One TV maker has a green button on a PC. It just dims the screen.

"Anyone can lower the brightness," Merson said. "[Manufacturers] are extremely serious about it."

Photo of a television test pattern via voidmstr / Creative Commons.

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