The national battle against phantom power

posted by Joshua Lang

Up until recent years, power supplies for consumer electronics were left largely unregulated in the United States, and manufacturers of such devices thus made little effort to increase their power efficiency. Efficiency levels, commonly as low as 40-50%--wasting as inconspicuously little as 1W per hour--fail to catch the attention of individual consumers, but totaled over the United States, require entire additional power plants.

Let's try a thought experiment. Let's make the modest assumption that at any given moment, one sixth of the American population has one single power supply plugged in somewhere. The average price of electricity in the USA is 11 cents per kilowatt-hour (kilowatt-hour= unit of energy equivalent to the amount of energy expended or transferred by one kilowatt of power within an hour).

1 Watt x 50,000,000 plugged-in devices x .001 Kilowatt x $0.11 per hour x 24 hours x 365 days = $48,180,000 down the drain each year

In response to such waste and the general inefficiency of consumer electronics, the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Energy launched the Energy Star program in 1992, with the goal of reducing energy consumption and ensuing greenhouse gas emissions by power plants. Products that meet Energy Star standards are marked with the Energy Star label and save an average of 20%-30% of expended energy.

Although the Energy Star system represented an important step for environmentalism and purports to have saved enough energy in 2007 to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 27 million cars (or about $16 billion in utility bills), it depends upon a well-wishing, well-informed consumer. The sad fact is that, in our hypothetical situation, the price of wasted energy averages to less than a dollar a year per person, hardly enough to wake the environmentalist in Joe Blow.

The California Energy Commission first addressed this problem by making mandatory Energy Star's previously voluntary criteria within California. The CEC's regulations went into effect in July of 2007. Power supply manufacturers, however, voiced their concern that other states would follow suite and thus create a complicated mess of varying regulations across the United States. By passing the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the US government consequently set a minimum level of efficiency for power supplies that corresponded to the levels that the CEC had set. These new federal regulations supercede all state regulations.