Death Panel for Plasmas?
Will a California regulation really ban plasmas and large-screen LCDs? A look at both sides of the issue.
September 02, 2009 by Steven Castle

The California Energy Commission (CEC) still plans to vote on a controversial television energy use requirement that could restrict the sale of inefficient TVs in the state, starting in 2011. Opponents to the plan, led by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), say the restrictions would effectively ban the sale of plasma-based TVs and many large-screen LCD TVs.

The CEC says the mandates will save Californians $18 to nearly $30 per year per television in energy costs. The CEA says it will cost the state $50 million annually in state tax revenue and destroy 4,600 jobs that are tied to TV sales, distribution and installation.

Seeing the “facts” disseminated from both sides of this issue is like watching the health care debate. I don’t know what to believe any more. Is California ordering up a death panel for plasmas? Or is it merely trying to offer its citizens more energy-saving opportunities and save itself from having to build more power plants?

True, the proposed regulations don’t ban big-screen TVs outright. But according to the CEA and an economic report the trade group contracted by Resolution Economics, the law could outlaw the sale of “80 percent of current 35-to-39-inch LCD TVs and 100 percent of current plasma TV models larger than 60 inches.” The CEC has its own sample of current TVs that would meet its requirements.

In an attempt to look beyond the hue and cry and shed some real light on this issue, I am going to do something that may be considered radical in the blogosphere: I will attempt to objectively and impartially present both sides of the issue, with a level-headed analysis of much of the available information.

(Total disclaimer time: I realize that by boldly stating my objectivity, I may well provoke each side to claim that I am not representing its side fairly and fully. And I likely can’t, without retiring from my present position and obsessively poring over each and every “fact” and then writing an extremely boring white paper that no one will read or care about, becoming depressed about that and turning to the life of a recluse and quite likely going insane. And I’m very sorry, but I just don’t have time for all of that right now.)

Really, I can see both sides of this issue. I can see that restricting the sale of TVs not meeting certain energy requirements will encourage the use and development of more energy-saving TVs. California represents one of the world’s largest economies. It is more than a significant market, and if it restricts the use of high-energy consuming products, we will almost certainly see more energy conservation taking place and more energy-efficient products.

Will it save the amount of energy the CEC claims? Dunno. Will it really save consumers energy and money? Dunno, but more efficient TVs will save people money in the long run. Will it prevent California from having to build more power plants? I have no idea. Will it result in a bright new world of energy efficiency and clean technologies ringed by great green rainbows? I wouldn’t count on it, because there’s a whole lot more we need to do.

On the flip side, who wants to ban certain sizes of TVs, especially if it will result in job losses and less tax income and upset an already fragile economy? I am not an economist, so I don’t know if the effective “ban” of plasmas and large-screen TVs will negatively impact California’s economy. I’m sure it could. But do we believe the dire predictions put forth by the CEA, with an economic analysis by a hired company? I am always wary of those.

The answers, my friends, are likely somewhere in the middle of these claims. A restriction on energy use that makes it much tougher for plasma TVs and large-screen LCDs will almost certainly prevent some of those models from being sold in California, but it won’t prevent all plasmas and big LCD TVs them from being sold there. Voluntary Energy Star guidelines, for one, encourage more energy-efficient models. The newest Energy Star 3.0 specifications for TVs, the first of which included guidelines for power use when a TV is on, didn’t even go far enough, because most TVs available on the market have met the requirements. That means manufacturers easily made their TVs more energy efficient. (Energy Star designs its specifications so about 25 percent of the products meet it, representing the most energy-efficient TVs.)

Could we expect the same innovation from TV makers if a real restriction—and not just a voluntary program—were put into effect? Absolutely. And will those TVs cost more, at least in the short term, as the CEA claims? Almost certainly. And will they save people energy in the long run? Almost certainly as well.

Future Energy Star specs for TVs will go into effect in May 2010 and May 2012, and the proposals are much more strict than the current standard. And brace yourself: The new Energy Star specs are even more strict than the proposed California requirements.

From the information I have gathered, here are the allowable energy use for the current and new Energy Star specs going into effect in 2010 and 2012, as well as the proposed California requirements for both 2011 and 2013. The California restrictions would also require TVs sold there to use 1 watt or less in standby power. (Note that the Energy Star specs for 2010 and 2012 are still being finalized and subject to change.)

42-inch TV (754 square inches)
Current Energy Star 3.0 spec—208 watts
Energy Star 2010—115 watts
Energy Star 2012—81 watts
Proposed California 2011 mandate—182 watts
Proposed California 2013 mandate—115 watts

50-inch TV (1,068.2 square inches)
Current Energy Star 3.0 spec—318 watts
Energy Star 2010—153 watts
Energy Star 2012—107 watts
Proposed California 2011 mandate—245.6 watts
Proposed California 2013 mandate—153 watts

60-inch TV (1,537.6 square inches)
Current Energy Star 3.0 spec—391 watts
Energy Star 2010—210 watts
Energy Star 2012—108 watts
Proposed California 2011 mandate—None, but original proposal was 339.5 watts
Proposed California 2013 mandate—None, but one may be set; original proposal was 209.5 watts

We should keep in mind, however, that Energy Star is a voluntary program and the California proposal would be a law restricting the sale of TVs that don’t meet its efficiency requirements. That’s a totally different ballgame. Some TVs under the proposed California law will likely be prohibited from being sold in the state. But all TVs that meet Energy Star, and many that do not, will be available for sale as well.

I just wanted to shed some light on this subject, which you’re unlikely to get from the arm waving on both sides this issue. If you want to find out more information from both sides of the issue, check out Californians for Smart Energy website, which contains links to the CEA report, as well as the CEC’s FAQ on the proposal and its own fact sheet.

What side you take may be a matter of whether you think mandates are needed to encourage more energy-efficient electronics.

Note: This article was edited to reflect changes in the California proposal announced on Sept. 18, 2009, excluding sets of 1,400 square inches in screen size, or equivalent to a 58-inch screen and above, from Tier 1 restrictions. The CEC may institute restrictions on those TVs in Tier 2 (set to go into effect in 2013).

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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