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New EPA Energy Star Specs Raise The Power-Efficiency Bar For PCs

The new Energy Star specs that went into effect last week are the first major overhaul in more than a decade.
Chances are really good that your energy efficient PC isn't considered energy efficient right now.

New EPA Energy Star specifications for desktops, notebooks, and workstations that went into effect last Friday raise the energy efficiency bar significantly for the first time in 11 years.

Before last Friday, most PCs, notebooks, workstations, and other products falling under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's category for "computers" met the old Energy Star specifications, which included only two requirements -- having a sleep mode and a power-down function.

But with a number of new Energy Star specifications that are in effect right now -- including requirements pertaining to the equipments' power supplies -- only about 20% to 25% of desktops and other computers sold today meet the more rigorous standards, said Katharine Kaplan, Energy Star product development manager for IT and consumer products, in an interview.

"Most products sold till last Friday could meet the old requirements, but we've raised the bar significantly with the new specifications," she said. "Only a small slice of products can meet the new requirements now." However, the EPA expects more manufacturers will try to meet the new standards over the next year or so, she said.

In order to meet the new Energy Star requirements, products must meet energy use guidelines in three distinct operating modes: standby, sleep mode, and while computers are being used. In its new rules, the EPA says "this ensures energy savings when a computer is active and performing a range of tasks, as well as when standing by."

The most costly new Energy Star requirement relates to energy efficient internal power supply specs for desktops and external power supplies for notebook computers, she said.

Manufacturers have told the EPA that the new power supply requirements add about $30 in costs to meet the revamped Energy Star requirements, Kaplan said. However, the cost of those power supplies will fall as large computer manufacturers scurry to get on board with the new specs, she said.

For users of computers meeting the new Energy Star specs, "the savings are $2 to $10 a year per computer, or 20 kWh to 100 kWh," she said. That can add up.

"Considering the incredible number of computers in use by households, business, and government, the environmental savings are quite significant," she said.

On its Energy Star Web site, the EPA estimates that its new computer specifications will save consumers and businesses "more than $1.8 billion in energy costs over the next 5 years and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equal to the annual emissions of 2.7 million vehicles."

The EPA first released Energy Star requirements for desktop PCs in 1996, and while there have been "small modifications" over the years, the new specs that went into effect last week are the first major overhaul in more than a decade, Kaplan said.

Right now, Energy Star specs are only available for desktops, notebook, laptop, workstation computers, as well as game consoles, integrated computer systems, and desktop-derived servers.

However, work is under way at the EPA with input from manufacturers to develop Energy Star specifications for servers used in data centers. The EPA is "hopeful" to have those specifications ready by first quarter of next year, she said.

In addition, the EPA this week expects to issue a report to Congress making recommendations about energy efficiency in data centers, said Andrew Fanara, EPA Energy Star product development team leader.