California Passes First-in-Nation Energy Rules About Computers

by | December 19, 2016

By Kate Galbraith

In a push to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from a fast-evolving industry, California regulators approved the nation's first energy-efficiency standards for computers Wednesday.

The rules, passed unanimously by the California Energy Commission after years in the making, will cover desktops and laptops as well as monitors, workstations and small servers.

They could have an impact across the nation, showing the power that state regulators maintain even as President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to reduce regulatory burdens on companies.

"We expect California's standards to become to a large extent de facto standards," impacting not only the country but the world, said Pierre Delforge, an energy efficiency expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Manufacturers, especially large ones, "do not like to manage separate supply chains for different states," he said.

A central aim of the rules is to reduce the amount of energy that computers consume while not in use. For example, when most computers are shipped, their settings must be adjusted under the new regulations so that the screen will go to sleep if the machine is not used for 30 minutes. A monitor must go to sleep after 15 minutes of idleness. (Customers can, however, change the settings.)

"When you walk into a room and the lights know when to turn on and know when to turn off when you leave -- a future computer will behave more like that," said Paul Ford, environmental compliance manager at HP Inc.

The rules will not affect other ubiquitous products of the technology revolution such as smartphones, tablets, game consoles or large servers. Nor will they impact existing computers.

Workstations and small computers must begin complying in 2018. Regulations for desktops and notebooks start taking effect in 2019.

Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, said California's decision carries weight because of its size and heritage as home to Silicon Valley.

"California doing this can in fact move the industry in the right direction," Cooper said.

Computers and monitors account for up to 3 percent of residential electricity use in California, and up to 7 percent of commercial electricity use, according to the commission.

"When grouped together, computers and monitors are among the leading users of energy in California," said Commissioner Andrew McAllister. "When they sit idle, which is often, they waste energy and money unnecessarily."

The changes will require rejiggering by manufacturers. Across the United States, 14 percent of monitors and 73 percent of laptops already meet the standards, according to the commission. Laptops are already fairly energy-frugal because they run on batteries, which can store only a limited amount of energy.

Desktops will be the most affected: Depending on the type of machine, as few as 6 percent of current models comply.

Consumers will probably notice little difference. Manufacturers could change from magnetic hard disks to newer, more expensive solid-state drives, which would lower energy use and also make machines faster.

The commission reckons that monitors will cost an extra $5 initially, but that consumers will also save about $30 over the life of the devices. For desktop computers, people may have to spend $10 or slightly more up front but figure to save at least $40 over the machine's lifetime.

Statewide savings on utility bills could amount to $373 million annually, once the standards fully kick in and people have bought new, energy-efficient machines, the commission estimated. They should save as much electricity as is needed to power homes in San Francisco and San Luis Obispo counties for a year.

Energy-efficiency rules are often opposed by affected industries, which fear they will make manufacturing more expensive. Standards for large flat-panel TVs approved by California in 2009 ran into opposition from an electronics trade association, for example.

But major Silicon Valley computer and chip makers, which often support green energy goals, have lined up behind the computer regulations.

"This standard will have a positive environmental impact," said Shahid Sheikh, director of global product energy regulations for Intel.

Ford of HP praised the rules as "groundbreaking." The energy limits, he said, are "both ambitious but achievable," and will have ramifications across HP's worldwide supply chain.

Sheikh and Ford declined to say how much the rules might cost their companies.

Apple, a major computer manufacturer and a member of an industry group that supported the rules, declined to comment.

California has long been out in front on energy-efficiency standards, dating to the energy crisis of the 1970s. In 1976, during Gov. Jerry Brown's first term, the state adopted the first efficiency standards for refrigerators. Efficiency requirements for appliances and electronics have become part of the broad strategy for achieving deep greenhouse gas cuts planned by the state to tackle climate change.

The California Energy Commission plans to continue to keep watch over the fast-changing industry and adopt new requirements as necessary.

(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle