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California's tough TV power-use standard forces improved efficiency

A new proposal by California's Energy Commission is aimed at cutting down TV power use over the next few years, providing a glimpse of what's to come for HDTVs.


Correction 3-27-09: This article originally characterized California's proposed standard as "new legislation," when in fact it is a proposed regulation.

The state of California is considering adopting a regulation that will prevent sales of TVs that don't meet a relatively stringent energy efficiency requirement. Most TVs CNET has tested fail to meet the requirement today, although the standard as currently proposed won't go into effect until 2011.

According to its FAQ, the California Energy Commission plans to vote on the proposal this summer. The most recent draft of the proposal (PDF) puts forth the specific power-efficiency requirements, based on watts-per-square-inch of screen, in a tiered approach. Tier 1 would go into effect in 2011, while the stricter Tier 2 would hit in 2013. There's also an alternate, more lenient version of Tier 1 included in the proposal. Televisions that fail the requirement would be ineligible for sale in the state.

Digging into the proposal, we found that it's significantly more-aggressive than the current voluntary Energy Star 3.0 program, for which nearly every new HDTV qualifies. Among LCD TVs we tested in 2008, 19 out of 38, or exactly half, fail the requirement for 2011, while all but two fail for 2013. Among plasmas all but 3 out of 23 fail. Check out the chart below for specifics.

Given California's aggressive goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the fact that, according to a PG&E study 10 percent of household power use in California is tied to TV watching (which includes cable boxes, game consoles, etc.) the proposal stands a good chance of passing. If it does, TV makers will have to make serious improvements in efficiency over the next few years. And since that state is such a large market, and manufacturers are unlikely to want to make TVs that won't be eligible for sale in California, the legislation could mean sweeping changes for TV technology in general.

Panasonic's plasmas have overly dim default picture modes to cut down on power use.

First off, plasma is going to have to get much more efficient. The only three models we tested that pass the 2011 standard are Panasonic's TH-50PZ800U, TH-50PZ850U and TH-58PZ800U, all three of which employ the "dirty trick" of extremely dim default picture settings to get wattage numbers down. Since the California standard, like Energy Star, only considers default picture settings, a dim setting can make up for an otherwise inefficient display.

Even Panasonic's new TC-P42S1, touted for its power-sipping chops, fails the 2011 standard, despite its own relatively dim default picture. At CES this January the company did claim that future plasma models would be even more efficient, but we suspect that even if they are, the "dirty trick" will have to remain in effect.

The future looks brighter for LCD. Many of the models we tested last year qualify for California's Tier 1, and none are as dim as Panasonic's plasmas in their default setting, although most are still dimmer by default than before. That said, only two LCD sets--Philips' Eco TV and the dim-by-default Panasonic TC-37LZ85--will make the grade in 2013. We expect big improvements in energy efficiency by then, but nonetheless it's telling that not even LED-backlit models like the Sony KLV-40ZX1M or Samsung LN-46A950 are efficient enough to be sold in California in four years.

The nuts and bolts of the standard are still up for discussion, and for what it's worth the Consumer Electronics Association says the California standards are unnecessary and potentially damaging in a bad economy. Personally I think forcing TV makers to improve efficiency is a good thing in general, although the choice between a big, beautiful, bright-enough picture and cutting down on power use is pretty tough for me.