California computer standards boot up big savings

Posted on December 15, 2016 by
Chris Granda

This week, the California Energy Commission (CEC) approved first-in-the-nation energy efficiency standards for computers and computer displays, or monitors (CEC factsheet). These new standards, which reflect several years of collaborative work by the computer industry, California investor-owned utilities, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Consumer Federation of America, other consumer organizations, and regional energy efficiency organizations should help save energy worth billions of dollars each year that would otherwise be wasted by the desktops, laptops and other computer equipment that consumers and businesses use every day.

California’s new computer standards are the latest in a long and very successful history of state level actions, dating back to the original refrigerator efficiency standards in the 1970s. California’s standards often become models for other states as well as the nation. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has begun a process of developing national computer efficiency standards, but has not yet published a proposal.  

The computer industry has a good record of improving their products’ energy efficiency and participated constructively in the development of the new California standards. The standards will promote further innovation and the widespread adoption of existing energy-saving computer and monitor technologies. Manufacturers have expressed confidence that they will be able to achieve the new energy efficiency requirements, according to the New York Times.

Of course, computer manufacturers serve national and international markets. Rather than offer computers with different efficiency levels in California, manufacturers may upgrade national product lines to meet the California standards, especially if other states decide to follow suit. Based on the CEC’s estimates for California, we extrapolate that if manufacturers sold only compliant computers and monitors nationally, savings would reach up to 20,000 gigawatt hours of electricity annually by 2027, or enough to supply 1.6 million U.S. homes. NRDC further describes the standards and their benefits for California and the nation in their blog post

The California computer and monitor standards do not cover tablets, game consoles, televisions, larger servers, or computers used to control industrial machines. Different energy efficiency requirements will come into effect for various product types from 2018 to 2021 with a first tier of energy efficiency requirements for the most common computers becoming effective on January 1, 2019. A second, stronger efficiency level for this equipment kicks in on July 1, 2021.

California’s new standards acknowledge the challenge of setting energy efficiency requirements for rapidly evolving technologies like computers and monitors. Since consumer preferences for additional features and computing power may change over time, the California computer standards are designed to be flexible with allowances and exemptions to support innovation. However, these allowances and exemptions could potentially reduce the expected energy savings under some scenarios. To address this possibility the CEC issued an adoption order directing Commission staff to conduct rigorous market monitoring of “specific features and types of computers and monitors” using the state’s appliance efficiency database system. If the market develops in ways that significantly reduce the expected energy savings, CEC can revise the standards in the future.