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New Energy Star ratings for PCs on the way

The PC industry is about to get the first update to the Energy Star specifications in more than a decade as home gadgets continue to suck down the juice. Photos: PC stands for power consumption

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
New Energy Star ratings for PCs on the way Standards for energy-efficient PCs are about to take a step forward for the first time in more than a decade.

The Energy Star program is set to release the first revision to the specification for PCs since 1992, which was practically the Bronze Age of the PC industry. Energy Star stickers are familiar to those who have shopped for household appliances over the last few years; it designates appliances or electronics that meet certain specifications for energy efficiency.

Due to the lag in formulating a new certification, more than 90 percent of PCs currently on the market are eligible for an Energy Star sticker. But come July, a new voluntary specification will go into effect for energy-efficient PCs and game consoles that includes new recommendations for power supply efficiency and idle power consumption.

And later this year, a similar specification update is planned for flat-screen televisions, targeting the increasing popularity of energy-hogging TVs. The idea is to encourage companies to make more energy-efficient products without imposing requirements, said Jill Abelson, a representative for the Energy Star-labeled-products program.

But the program also sheds light on the growing power bill required to run a modern household of electronic gear, not to mention the power requirements for even an average-size business. "With energy costs escalating, everybody's really on the climate bandwagon and looking at it carefully," Abelson said. "Efficiency really matters."

The new specifications for PCs are designed to distinguish the top 25 percent of all PCs as measured by energy consumption, Abelson said.

The Energy Star program--a joint project of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy--is most important to government and corporate buyers, Abelson said. The government is required to purchase Energy Star-labeled products, and corporations can receive tax breaks for purchasing Energy Star products. Plus, the power saved by using efficient products really adds up when looking across a large network of PCs, allowing those organizations to cut on power bills or expand their hardware at the same cost.

The new specification targets two areas: the power supply and the amount of power used in "idle mode," said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council, which helped the Energy Star program come up with the technical requirements for the new specification.

To be Energy Star-compliant, PCs must now use a power supply that converts 80 percent of incoming electricity for use by the PC, Horowitz said. A mainstream power supply these days is about 70 percent efficient, he said.

The specification also now includes requirements for idle mode, defined as a system that has booted and is fully awake, but isn't running any applications. For example, to qualify for the program, a basic desktop PC must consume less than 50 watts in idle mode. PCs with multicore processors and powerful graphics processors get more leeway. A basic notebook has to consume less than 14 watts of power, while a notebook with a graphics chip has to consume less than 22 watts of power.

So why did it take so long for the Energy Star program to update the requirements? PCs have grown far more efficient since the early 1990s with advances in chipmaking technology and a shift toward notebooks that use plenty of built-in power management technology.

Part of the problem is that there is no accepted metric for power consumption, Horowitz said. "What are you going to make the computer do during that test, and how do you make sure it's not gamed?" he asked, referring to the tendency of computer companies to tweak their systems for maximum performance--not real-world conditions--in tests against competitors.

Some manufacturers might see better results when a PC is cranking away on full power, or others might want to use a more realistic situation where a user is simply browsing the Web. As a result, there's still no metric for measuring the power a PC uses when it's "on" that everyone can agree on, Horowitz said.

A similar problem is derailing progress on an Energy Star program for a component that puts even more of a strain on the electrical grid. Servers are huge drains on electrical resources: not just because of their own power requirements, but due to the sophisticated cooling equipment needed to keep servers running. Many businesses have reported that they are prevented from adding new servers because they can no longer afford the electricity.

Servers currently are not part of the Energy Star program because the industry can not agree on a metric, but testing is being done to measure the various levels of energy efficiency across different products, Abelson said. Congress has also passed a resolution calling for more energy-efficient servers and requiring the EPA to conduct a study on energy-efficient servers.

A simple step to save energy

Want to do something simple to reduce your PC's electrical consumption? Turn off the flying toasters.

Screensavers are a relic of days past, and they actually force a PC to use more power than if consumers just let their machine sit idle, says Noah Horowitz of the National Defense Resources Council. Back in the olden days, screensavers were recommended to guard against "burn-in" of images that sat undisturbed on a screen for too long.

Modern displays, however, have largely eliminated the burn-in problem for PC users, Horowitz said. So turn off that screensaver: you could save as much as $50 a year on your electric bill by implementing power management technology on your PC and ditching that digital aquarium.

--Tom Krazit

In the near term, however, Energy Star will come up with a tier-2 specification for PCs that will set additional standards for computers that don't make the top-tier standards. Also, it's working on a specification for flat-screen televisions, one of the biggest causes of electricity sticker shock in the modern home.

Depending on the model, a 42-inch flat-screen TV consumes between 100 to 250 watts when turned on. Assuming it's on five hours a day, that's something like 200 to 470 kWh/year, or about $500 over a 10-year lifespan, depending on where you live, Horowitz said.

Just like with PCs, the specification for televisions is woefully outdated: it was created to measure the energy consumption of black-and-white television. But environmental advocates hope to catch the flat-screen television industry much earlier than the PC industry and develop a specification that measures how much power a TV uses when it's on, Horowitz said.

This is still a somewhat contentious process--different amounts of electricity are required to show Japanese animation than, say, Grey's Anatomy--but Horowitz is confident that the industry will agree on a metric.

While business and government customers are sure to save money by implementing thousands of energy-efficient PCs across their networks, the benefits to individual consumers are a little harder to explain, said Stephen Baker, an analyst with The NPD Group. But programs like Energy Star appeal to consumers because they don't have to do anything to feel like they are helping the environment, he said.

"You're not asking them to pay 20 bucks for recycling or not throw their PCs in the trash," Baker said. "It gives them an opportunity to feel like they are doing good."

Correction: This story misstated the electrical costs associated with running a big-screen television. Depending on the model, a 42-inch flat-screen TV consumes between 100 to 250 watts when turned on. Assuming it's on five hours a day, that's something like 200 to 470 kWh/year, or about $500 over a 10-year lifespan, depending on where you live, Horowitz said.