For some time now, energy efficiency wonks have had their eyes on a problem that has been dubbed the "miscellaneous electrical load," or MEL - the growing percentage of home electricity consumed by objects that are not heating or cooling systems, large appliances, or lighting. Rather, they're an odd assortment of electronics and other miscellany - ranging from aquariums to sprinkler systems.
Many of these objects are never fully turned "off," and thus consume power all the time. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a "typical American home has forty products constantly drawing power."
Now, the state of California - which has often leaned ahead of the rest of the country in setting energy efficiency rules - is taking a major swing at one group of devices often included in the MEL category.
Late last week, the California Energy Commission (CEC) released a set of draft standards that, if adopted, would considerably increase the energy efficiency of computers and accompanying monitors.
"Policymakers have recently become aware of the importance of miscellaneous electrical loads in buildings and of the inadequacy of current policies to reduce them," said Alan Meier, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who studies MEL. "California's actions are a step in the right direction."
The rule goes far beyond mysterious home energy uses - desktop computers are particularly prevalent in offices and commercial settings. The most significant changes in the standards would be to these desktops, and in particular, to the amount of power that they guzzle when they're idle - "when the computer is on but not being used," the commission wrote.
"Idle modes are the largest opportunity to reduce energy consumption because computers spend roughly half of their time in this 'on mode,'" noted the CEC. In fact, a study of 125 office desktop computers released by the CEC last year, conducted by the California Plug Load Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, found that these machines spent 61 per cent of their time "on but user-inactive."
The commission wants to slash by half how much power desktop computers use in their idle modes, for computers made starting in 2018. The proposed standards have already been heralded by some environmental and consumer organisations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Consumer Federation of America.
"California's the first state to write a rule here, a little bit ahead of the world, but that's what California does," said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America and author of a February 2014 report that heralded the potential for the state to blaze a new policy trail in this space. The document cited what it termed "household digital devices" as a key part of home energy use that, thus far, have "not been addressed by energy standards."
Desktop computers are kind of the energy hogs in our homes and offices right now.
California's move could reverberate in the computer industry, given the size of its population and market and also the presence of key parts of the tech community within the state.
According to the California Energy Commission, computers, monitors, and signage displays consume 5 per cent of the state's overall electricity - and even more in some commercial buildings and offices, where the total can rise to more than 10 per cent. The benefits of savings will be fairly large - the commission projects cuts to electricity bills of $340 million from the regulations on computers alone.
The bulk of that would come from significantly reducing power use of desktop computers. Laptops or notebooks, noted the CEC, tend to use less than half as much energy as desktops - and tablets less still. When it comes to increasingly popular tablets, the commission said, "the opportunities for savings are minimal due to existing battery charger regulations and market pressure to achieve high efficiency to enhance battery life."
"Desktop computers are kind of the energy hogs in our homes and offices right now," said Pierre Delforge of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "A lot of them are on 24-7."
Plus, desktops come with monitors, which add even more to the energy consumption. And, most important, despite current industry trends, the desktops are very much not dead, in part because of their steadfast role in offices. "Sales remain significant," the commission stated.
Doug Johnson, vice president of technology policy at the Consumer Electronics Association, said he's still studying California's proposal at this time - but mentioned that his industry has already voluntarily reduced energy use from its products. A recent study by the CEA, for instance, found that despite their proliferation, consumer electronic devices were using less total home energy in 2013 than they were in 2010 - declining from 13.2 per cent of all home electricity to 12 per cent.
Johnson suggested that a standards-based approach to energy efficiency may not fit the electronics industry. "Static standards, by design, just don't keep pace with the market," he said.
The Consumer Federation of America's Mark Cooper, however, argued that California needed to step in because while the industry has indeed shown a knack for making laptops and mobile devices highly energy efficient, desktops haven't shown the same progress.
"The consumer has a great deal of difficulty figuring out if his electricity guzzler is his desktop," said Cooper. "In that situation, the manufacturer has no incentive to make it energy efficient. That's a market failure."