California wants to regulate tech toys; CEA irate

Consumer electronics in California may soon face a new round of regulations from the California Energy Commission — and the Consumer Electronics Assn. isn’t about to remain silent on the issue.

Once the CEC announced earlier this year that it plans to develop new energy consumption standards for items including computers, displays, game consoles, imaging equipment, servers and set-top boxes, the CEC and the CEA were set up for battle.

The CEC quickly framed the need for new standards as being about protecting the public from exploding energy costs. The CEA, on the other hand, worries there will be so many restrictions that companies will become less competitive and less innovative.

Consumer electronics — from televisions to tablets — are entering California households at a rising rate. Each new device feeding off the power grid puts pressure on the state to supply more power; the ultimate outcome could be an increase in the number of power plants. The high cost of developing and maintaining new plants would offset any savings from increased supply of energy, leading to still higher energy prices.

“California is on the cutting edge of managing its energy resources because we establish these kinds of forward thinking standards,” said Adam Gottlieb, acting director of media communications for the CEC. “It’s very often the case that California sets a standard for something like energy consumption and the rest of the nation follows.”

But the CEA doesn’t accept the need for what it sees as meddling on the part of a regulatory agency. The org has pointed out that voluntary efforts like the Energy Star program have worked and make it possible for consumers to choose products that have been made to adhere to specific energy usage standards.

Doug Johnson, VP of technology policy for the CEA, said, “There are big incentives for manufacturers to meet a voluntary standard for energy consumption — like that set forth by the Energy Star program — with the products they manufacture. “When you give buyers a choice, they often move toward products that cost them less (to run), and then the manufacturers move in the direction, too.”

There are important distinctions between the products that currently participate in the Energy Star program and the consumer electronics that will likely be regulated by the new standards.

First, Energy Star products are often high-usage items like air conditioners, washers and dryers. They’re also items from which consumers have a wide range of models to choose.

Consumer electronics gadgets, like game consoles, don’t always fit that profile. There may be just a few choices in a category, and consumers may not look at their energy consumption the way they do for a refrigerator and so may not be motivated by an Energy Star logo.

Cable boxes are an even more unusual case because there’s little or no choice on the part of the consumer. The cable provider chooses the box and provides it with the service.

“Even if these items are different, we think there should be voluntary standards that are developed by the industry rather than standards that are created in a haphazard way by an organization that doesn’t really understand much of this business,” says Johnson. “Their meetings are open but their minds are closed.”

This isn’t the first time — and won’t likely be the last — that these two bodies have knocked heads. Just over two years ago, the CEC began to require that all TVs sold in the state meet new energy-efficiency standards. The new energy-consumption threshold went into effect in 2011, and California consumers will save $8.1 billion in energy costs over the course of a 10-year period, according to CEC estimates. According to the CEC, TVs account for 10% of a home’s electricity usage on average.

TVs over 1400 square inches – or approximately 58 inches in screen size – were exempted from the 2011 standards. According to Gottlieb, the CEC chose to do this because the organization believed it needed to do further research to better understand the large screen TV market and wanted to work with the industry in order to develop efficiency standards.

The CEA’s response to these standards was predictably critical. The org argued that manufacturers would be hampered by the standards and forced to lay off workers, TV prices would rise and that would mean fewer purchases and lost tax revenue for the state. At this point it’s too early to tell who is right.

CEA is “always saying that regulatory standards like this will mean these kinds of costs and losses, but those things don’t come to pass,” says Gottlieb. “Regulations make everyone more efficient, and they protect consumers from higher energy bills in the short term, because their devices use less energy, and the long term, because we’re not having to build new power plants to meet rising energy needs.”

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