California moves to restrict TVs' power usage; others may follow

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 27, 2009

Nick Canzoneri weighed several factors when he went shopping for a new flat-screen TV at the Best Buy in Gaithersburg earlier this week. He wanted the right brand ("Sony. I've had one for 20 years. I tend to stick with what I like . . .") and the right price. Size mattered, too. Canzoneri's son talked him into the enormous 52-inch model he was trying to wedge into his Toyota sedan.

Suffice to say, environmental considerations weren't at the top of Canzoneri's list.

Soon, they might be.

Those big, bright flat-panel TVs suck down far more power than the puny cathode-ray tube TVs they're rapidly replacing. Which is why regulators and environmentalists -- who usually reserve their passion for shrinking rain forests, melting glaciers and gas-guzzling SUVs -- are turning their attention to the once-humble TV set.

Last week, after two years of debate and study, California became the first state to challenge America's heretofore unquestioned love affair with its TV set. A state panel established the nation's first energy-consumption limits for TVs up to 58 inches wide. Regulations for larger sets will be phased in later. The new rules do not affect TVs for sale now, but they will require TVs sold in California to use about a third less power by 2011 and about half as much by 2013. TVs that can't meet the standards would be banned from sale in California, which accounts for 10 percent of the 35 million new TVs sold in America every year.

The prospect of the government messing with its citizens' God-given right to a super-size TV turned what might have been a mundane regulatory proceeding into a shot heard around the world. At least three other states (Washington, Oregon and Massachusetts) and two national governments (Canada and Australia) then said they, too, would consider energy limits.

Television has long been accused of being a cultural polluter, but the California Energy Commission's move touched off debate about how much our national TV habit has contributed to fouling the physical environment as well.

The energy commission estimated that TVs account for 10 percent of household electrical use in the state, once "related devices" like digital recorders and game consoles are included. But the Consumer Electronics Association, which opposed the new rules, says that figure is misleading since it covers all of a household's electronic devices, from iPods to computers. The Arlington-based trade group estimates that the TV alone accounts for no more than 3 percent of a family's monthly power bill.

Further, the group warns that the new regulations could raise prices, limit consumer choice and stifle innovation not just in California, but nationwide, as manufacturers redesign their products to comply with the state's new law. The most vulnerable may be power-hungry big-screen models, sets that use the less efficient plasma technology, and a new generation of TVs that offer 3-D picture or combine the functions of a TV and a personal computer.

"It's not this generation of TVs that you have to be concerned about, it's the multi-function TVs of tomorrow," says Jason Oxman, the Consumer Electronics Association's senior vice president of industry affairs.

What's more, the new regulations include technical requirements that could prompt a costly overhaul in TV designs, says Jon Fairhurst, a manager for Sharp Labs, the U.S.-based research arm of the Japanese set manufacturer. To save power, he says, new TVs would have to turn off automatically when attached to a DVD player that is turned off, something no TV does now.

"As far as I know, there are no TVs that pass the standard," Fairhurst says.

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