What the Calif. TV Mandates Mean
The good news, bad news, and possible silver linings of energy efficiency requirements.
November 25, 2009 by Steven Castle

OK, let’s all calm down a minute. So the California Energy Commission (CEC) voted to impose energy efficiency standards for TVs sold in that state. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll still have TVs, and plenty of good, high-performance TVs that also happen to be energy-efficient. And whether you think the regulations are warranted or not, there are some opportunities for the consumer electronics industry in this. It reminds me of the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when Brian and others who have been crucified start singing, “Always look on the bright side of life. …”

And no, you’re not Brian if you sell TVs.

1. We haven’t seen the last of this. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has vowed to fight the regulations in the legislature or the courts—and that means this could drag on into 2011, when the sales restrictions are set to go into effect. Will we see it go all the way to the federal government, as did California laws regulating automobile emissions? Even if nine black robes in D.C. eventually decide this, it will only highlight the need for greater energy efficiency—and in the world of green tech, that can’t be such a bad thing.

2. More energy efficiency mandates may come. Other states are reportedly watching the developments in California closely. Don’t be surprised to see similar TV energy mandates in Northeastern states, which tend to follow California’s environmental lead. And I’m not just talking about energy requirements for TVs. The rush to limit the energy use of electronics may be extended to other devices, such as cable and satellite set-top boxes and DVRs, almost all of which use full power 24/7. These energy wasters will almost certainly be targeted by legislators and energy-efficiency advocates—and perhaps rightly so. That’s because they can be built to be put into low-power states and come to life when a connected TV is turned on or programming updates are received. The cable, satellite and OEM manufacturers just have to get on the ball and make these devices available, but there has been no rush on their part to do so. This foot-dragging, unfortunately, has been indicative of much of the consumer electronics industry—with a few exceptions. And that is why, like it or not, we can expect to see even more energy mandates for electronics. (Also watch for the fallout resulting from Congress’ failure to enact climate change legislation, as well as the fallout when a diluted bill is finally agreed upon. States like California and those in the Northeast will likely get more proactive about energy efficiency and seek ways to curb overall electricity generation.)

3. More and cheaper LED TVs. Want performance and energy-efficiency in TVs? Look to LCD TVs backlit with energy-saving LEDs (light-emitting diodes). You’ll pay a premium for these sets today, to the tune of about $2,000 to $4,000 or more. But energy-efficiency mandates will only make these TVs more attractive and popular. Don’t be surprised to see LEDs become the de facto backlighting standard for LCDs in the next few years. And those LED TVs with local dimming improve contrast and black levels measurably. Seems like a match made in heaven for large, high-performance sets that have to meet energy consumption requirements.

4. We’ll see more energy efficiency innovation. Trade groups like the CEA say the California regulations will stifle innovation, but what are you going to do in this day and age: bring an irresponsible, energy-intensive technology to market? Energy mandates such as this, like or not, will spur innovation in energy efficiency technologies, not energy-hogging ones. Features like ambient light sensing that dims the screen for easier viewing at night, forced menus that enable energy-saving settings for home viewing, and auto shut-off will become more and more commonplace. And we’ll see other technologies, including energy-saving triple-efficiency plasma screens that will meet the California standards and perhaps the even stricter Energy Star levels in the coming years, without a compromise in performance. When done properly, regulation can create markets in the right areas.

5. Big screen boom? So far, sets over 58 inches in screen size are excluded from the California requirements. I wonder if there will be a run on sets of 46 and 50 inches prior to the regulations going into effect. (Remember, the sales restrictions are on new TVs only.) We may also see a run on sets larger than 58 inches, as well as front projector systems, once the mandates go into effect.

6. Greener companies will win. I don’t want to pick on the CEA too much. The organization has done a lot of good for the consumer electronics industry. And to its credit, it has tipped its hat to the green movement by supporting Energy Star, producing a greener Consumer Electronics Show and starting the mygreenelectronics web site. But it needs to do more—much more—and so do its member companies. In its statement opposing the California Energy Commission’s decision to enact the TV efficiency standards, the CEA states, “Energy efficiency is a shared concern for all parties. In fact, the consumer electronics industry has led the effort to reduce energy usage by with innovative, energy-efficient products, and consumers have responded with increased demand for these products.” Led the effort to reduce energy usage? Believe me, you will not find many people outside of the consumer electronics industry who consider the it a guiding force in energy efficiency. And this isn’t just a marketing problem. If the CEA truly believes it has led the way in energy efficiency, the organization is delusional. And resting your “green” laurels on achieving the Energy Star version 3.0 specification for TVs has not proved to be something to brag about, because far-too many TVs meet that far-too lenient spec and has inspired the EPA to set much stricter specifications for Energy Star TVs starting in May 2010. (Note: The California requirements aren’t as strict as upcoming Energy Star specs, though they are a mandate and not voluntary like Energy Star.)

The moral of the story: Green is not a one-time marketing effort. It is a process of evolving improvement—and unfortunately, much of the consumer electronics industry acts as if it fails to understand this. And if you say you do understand it, prove it. That’s not a dare. I will be glad to write about truly green technologies. But don’t greenwash. Bottom line: Anyone doing business in the electronics industry has got to make more of an effort to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Or will see more regulation, like it or not.

Yes, that’s some tough talk, but maybe that’s what this industry needs to be truly green.

My bet is that when 2011 rolls around, there won’t be that many new TVs that fail to qualify to be sold in California. And that in 2013, when a second tier of stricter requirements goes into effect, there will be even fewer TVs—if any—that won’t be sold in California. That means some inefficient designs for TVs may not even be manufactured. Is that such a terrible thing? When we’re in 2011 and 2013, we may look back on this like the Y2K scare—remember that?—and ask, “What were we so afraid of?”

Oh, what am I talking about? We’ll all be too busy watching our LED TVs.

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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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