By the end of this year, the California Energy Commission will adopt energy efficiency guidelines for computers, becoming the first state in the nation to do so.
(TNS) -- California, the state where the personal computer business was born and eventually revolutionized society, is about to be home to another change that figures to have a permanent impact on the computer industry.
By all indications, by the end of this year the California Energy Commission will adopt energy efficiency guidelines for computers, becoming the first state in the nation to do so.
The agency estimates it will add about $18 to price of a computer but promises it will save customers and businesses much more in energy savings.
Given California's size, market share and influence, the rules adopted by the CEC expect to trigger changes across the industry by mandating changes even the federal government has thus far avoided tackling.
"There is no question that strengthened standards for computers and monitors can reduce energy use overall," said CEC commissioner Andrew McAllister, in an email.
But there is some question whether the regulations are needed and whether they will be palatable enough for the computer industry to swallow.
Some four years in the making, the proposed regulations would apply to power-use settings for desktops, laptops and computer monitors sold in California.
A particular focus is on desktops, which efficiency watchdogs call "energy hogs" for their electricity consumption habits.
The proposed regulations have gone through a series of drafts, the most recent coming in March by the CEC.
Last week, a coalition of environmental groups urged the agency to adopt a strong set of regulations after the National Resources Defense Council released a report saying about 300 million computers in the U.S. spend between 50 to 77 percent of their time turned on but not being used.
Computers burn up $10 billion in electricity, the equivalent of 30 power plants emitting 65 million metric tons of CO2, the NRDC report said.
"Desktop computers use about 45 times as much energy as a laptop because they are not optimized for energy efficiency," said Pierre Delforge, director of high-tech sector energy efficiency at the NRDC. "They're plugged in all the time and have access to virtually unlimited power from the wall and don't have capacity constraints."
The Consumer Technology Association says the CEC regulations are not needed, claiming the quickly-evolving computer industry has improved energy efficiency through voluntary agreements.
CTA points to peer-reviewed studies it commissioned showing a 40 percent drop in power consumption in computer monitors and a 15 percent drop for desktops between 2010 and 2013.
"Four years (since the CEC took up the issue) is a long time to try and figure out how to force-fit a regulatory regime on a fast-moving industry," said Doug Johnson, CTA's vice president of technology policy. "When you take that kind of approach to the tech industry, you're essentially regulating through the rear-view mirror."
But a representative from another industry group, the Information Technology Industry Council, sounded much more hopeful.
"We felt the last staff draft in the spring was a mistake, but we think those issues are being resolved and we're optimistic going forward," said Rick Goss, senior vice president for environment and sustainability at ITI, in an email. "The new regs are a high bar that will generate real energy savings — they are ambitious but are achievable for us."
Working with yet another industry group, the Technology Network, ITI has taken part in a series of meetings and workshops with CEC staff members to try to hammer out an agreement by the end of the year that was cost-effective as well as technically feasible.
It appears the question is not if the CEC will announce computer regulations, but what they will look like when they are finalized.
"I think your reading is right," Johnson acknowledged. "In terms of the timing, we must be getting closer at this point."
After what was described by ITI and the Technology Network as "intense consultations" with the CEC, the two sides' differences appear to be narrowing.
"New efficiency standards that raise the bar and meet our customers' high standards for product reliability, value and productivity are within reach if all stakeholders work together to achieve them," said McAllister, who is the CEC's lead on energy efficiency.
The NRDC has also been involved in the discussions over the CEC drafts. So has the state's investor-owned utilities, who have an eye on meeting the state's mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Delforge called the talks with ITI and the Technology Network "constructive so far" and hopes "a reasonable agreement that will still see some strong savings" can be reached while also addressing the computer industry's "pain points" when it comes to implementing the anticipated regulations.
So how much will all this cost?
According to a CEC assessment, residential consumers will end up paying on average about $18 more for a computer.
But the commission estimates consumers will save $75.53 over the computer's 5-year lifespan, due to energy savings.
California businesses will pay up to $62 million more per year in incremental costs for installing more efficient computers, monitors and electronic signs, but the CEC said businesses will reduce their electricity costs by up to $290 million per year once their equipment has turned over.
Using numbers based on a UC Berkeley energy model, the CEC also predicted residential and business costs would amount to $1.3 billion over a 12-year period but residential consumers would save $2.2 billion and business would save $2.7 billion on electricity bills.
"It's hard to peg a figure at this point until the final regs come out," the ITI's Goss said. Part of the industry's concerns include making sure regulations make allowances for cybersecurity systems that cannot be powered down in order to ensure IT security.
The CTA said its studies show that even though homes are using more electronic devices, total home energy use actually went down from 13.2 percent to 12 percent between 2010 and 2013.
The NRDC countered with its analysis saying the energy use of a typical desktop computer can be cut roughly in half by swapping out components that are already available.
Regulations are needed, Delforge said, because the "market by itself is not capturing the opportunity (to save electricity), at least not at the level it could."
It's unclear when the CEC regulations would go into effect — possibly by 2018. A final draft proposal from the CEC will come by early September, followed by more discussion involving industry and other stakeholders.
Regulations from California could well have an impact on the federal level.
In place since 1992, the EnergyStar system is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a voluntary labeling program devised to recognize and promote the most energy-efficient products across a wide range of industries.
Computers and monitors were the first EnergyStar-labeled products.
"Presumably EPA is going to have to revisit the EnergyStar program for computers and raise the bar a lot higher to stay ahead," said the CTA's Johnson. "They typically want to be at the leading edge in terms of specifications."
The U.S. Department of Energy has been considering adopting mandatory energy standards for computers.
Delforge said federal regulators are watching the California case.
"Once the CEC completes its own process, DOE can look at what the CEC has done and maybe tweak it a little bit or adopt something similar on the national level and extend the CEC standard to the entire nation," Delforge said.
©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.