Monday, December 07, 2009

Power to the Television: California's Challenge

California likes to think of itself as leading the nation in various progressive measures such as environmental consciousness. Last Nov. 18, the California legislature passed a law that will require all televisions sold in the state to comply with increasingly restrictive regulations on power consumption. By 2013, new TVs sold in that state will have to use only about half the power they do now, on average.

Why single out TVs for power-consumption laws? For one thing, the big flat-screen devices that have chased the old cathode-ray tube models out to the garbage dump (which is another environmental issue we won't go into right now) tend to use a lot more power than all but the largest older-style TVs. Of course, those with long enough memories can recall the really old days of early vacuum-tube color televisions. The first guy in our neighborhood to buy a color TV bought his about 1964. He had it installed in a wall in his living room, and the thirty or so tubes generated so much heat it had to have its own cooling fan. Transistors improved this situation drastically, but when large-screen flat-panel liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) and especially plasma displays were introduced, the power required went back up to what it was in the pre-transistor days. For example, a 65-inch plasma unit (the Panasonic TC-P65S1), even though it is "Energy-Star qualified" (a voluntary industry rating), takes as much as 700 watts from the wall socket, although its average power consumption is a more modest 360 watts. Still, that's like running six 60-watt bulbs all the time, or a dozen energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs.

Should California do this? Or is it an unfair intrusion of government into private enterprise's business?

Manufacturers are unhappy about it for two reasons. One, if they do nothing and keep making some energy-hungry models, they won't be able to sell them in California, which by some estimates is a tenth of the 35-million-unit annual TV market in the U. S. Two, if they bite the bullet and redesign their TVs to use less power, they spend engineering capital on a feature that isn't all that attractive to the consumer—capital they could otherwise use for developing new features or improving the product in other ways.

But efficiency is such a reigning watchword in engineering that I expect the power consumption average would have come down on its own sooner or later, if not quite as fast as it would have if California hadn't shoved its oar in. Already many models meet the new standards, which shows that the lawmakers are not flying in the face of physical reality, which some regulations do. Which reminds me of a cautionary tale.

Over Thanksgiving, I was talking with my brother-in-law, who works for one of the largest privately-held refining companies in the U. S. He told me the story of some new diesel-fuel regulations that require refiners to blend in 10% biodiesel with all the diesel they sell. This is fine, he said, except that biodiesel tends to wax up at a very high temperature compared to ordinary diesel fuel. At a meeting with the new Obama-administration regulators, his engineers mixed up a batch of diesel according to the new regulations and put it in a cooler to simulate typical January weather in Minnesota. When they pulled it out of the cooler at the meeting and passed it around, it was a cloudy, jelly-like mess, which would run a diesel engine about as well as a tankful of Jell-O. They asked the regulators what they should do about it. "You'll be having to replace a lot of fuel filters," they said. In other words, it's not our problem, it's yours. His company eventually found a workaround that involved asking retailers to do some mixing on their own, but if they forget, their customers end up with jelly in their tanks and the whole situation is not a happy one at all.

Compared to that, the California regulations are mild and well within reason. As LCD technology improves, the plasma screen may go the way of the vacuum tube in any event. It is an inherently less efficient technology, and the only reason it's out there at all, that I can see, is because it was easier to make large plasma displays a few years ago than it was to make LCD displays of equal resolution. And as LED light sources become more efficient, that efficiency bonus will be available to the flat-panel makers, and things will tend to improve in the efficiency department almost naturally. There is a huge incentive to make efficient displays for battery-powered devices anyway, and a lot of that technology can be adopted by the plug-in-device manufacturers without a lot of trouble.

My own feeling of what the best thing is to do about TV power consumption, is to turn the durn thing off, but that's just me.

Sources: A good summary of the California regulation and its effects can be found in the Washington Post online edition for Nov. 27 at

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