California Energy Commission Considers Bill to Mandate Energy-Efficient Computers

The rules would require computers be enabled with software and hardware settings that control the amount of power used by the machines, especially when not in use, in a power period called “idle load.”

by Edward Ortiz, The Sacramento Bee / April 11, 2016

(TNS) -- All computers sold in California could be required to adopt stricter state energy standards by 2018, cutting computer energy consumption by as much as half, according to new regulations being proposed by the California Energy Commission.

The commission’s latest computer energy efficiency proposals, if adopted, would make California the first state to mandate such standards. They’re seen as a possible forerunner to the U.S. Department of Energy’s implementation of computer energy use standards nationwide.

The standards would apply to power use settings on both desktops and laptops, monitors and signage displays sold in California.

The rules would require such technology be enabled with software and hardware settings controlling the amount of power used by the machines, especially when not in use, in a power period called “idle load.”

Desktop computers are a major target for energy conservation since they consume more power than other devices in homes and offices.

Pierre Delforge, director of energy efficiency at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said desktops account for a third of computer sales but consume two-thirds of energy used by computers.

A recent study by the University of California, Irvine, found that while office desktop computers are switched on 77 percent of the day, they’re idle 61 percent of the time but still consuming electricity.

The regulations would save 1,913 gigawatts of power used by computers and 588 gigawatts from monitors and displays yearly, said Andrew McAllister, commissioner for the California Energy Commission. That’s estimated to reduce utility bills by more than $400 million annually by 2024.

“That’s enough savings to power all homes in San Francisco for a year,” McAllister said.

Under the standards proposed, the average desktop user would cut computer energy consumption by more than half.

McAllister said the commission has talked with computer makers Dell, HP Inc., Lenovo, Apple and Toshiba on how they’ll meet efficient power use standards, which would add roughly $18 to the cost of a desktop computer.

The energy savings will come out to roughly $60 over the five-year life of a computer, he said.

However, initial proposals by the CEC have not been warmly received by computer industry advocates.

“The requirements the CEC were proposing were based on assumptions about how our technology works, that was incorrect,” said Christopher Hankin, environment and sustainability director at the Information Technology Industry Council.

That Washington, D.C.-based organization, an advocate for the high-tech sector, has been in talks with the CEC on the proposed standards.

Until recent meetings, the two organizations had not come to an agreement on technical issues, like whether a hard drive can spin down all the way to meet proposed standards, and other power efficiency issues.

The misunderstandings triggered a round of follow-up meetings between the ITI and CEC.

“There are areas where we are in agreement, and areas where we’ve agreed to disagree,” said Hankin. “We still have work to do.”

Hankin chose not to comment on the latest standards proposal from the CEC because the organization is still weighing them.

The standards mandate a computer to turn off its monitor after 15 minutes of inactivity and would force a computer into sleep mode after 30 minutes of inactivity.

Manufacturers will have the option to ship computers that allow users to disable energy settings. Those who don’t disable the settings will receive incentives for meeting energy targets, said commission spokeswoman Amber Beck.

“There are a whole range of things that can be done to make desktops more efficient ranging from software configuration to using energy efficiency modes in computer chips,” Delforge said. “Addressing this issue is important because computers and monitors are the largest electronic loads in homes and businesses, and they’re not subject to efficiency standards yet.”

Similar standards are already in place in the European Union, which initially mandated that computers use no more than 1 watt of power in idle, or sleep mode, in 2010. That was cut to half a watt in idle mode by 2013.

“Right now there is little incentive for the industry to implement the same energy efficiency solutions in the U.S,” Delforge said.

Computers and gaming systems sold in the European Union come with a power savings setting for machines such as Microsoft’s Xbox One.

“In the U.S., they sell that model in a mode called ‘instant on,’ which uses about 12 watts, 24 hours a day,” Delforge said, compared to the European version of the Xbox that uses half a watt a day. “That mode wakes up quicker as it’s always listening for voice commands.”

Public comments will be heard about the proposed regulation on April 26.

©2016 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.