TCS Daily

The House Takes a Misplaced Bite at 'Energy Vampires'

By James Gattuso - August 1, 2001 12:00 AM

Wrong-way Corrigan couldn't have done it better. In a month punctuated by news of plummeting PC sales and ever more tech industry lay-offs and bankruptcies, Congress moved forward legislation that's bound to affect the ailing New Economy. A tax cut? Regulatory relief? No. Instead, the House voted August 1 to place new energy use restrictions on consumer electronic products.

The legislation (see Title I, Section 143), attached by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week to its comprehensive energy plan, imposes stringent new limits on "standby" power - the energy used by appliances when not in use. The new rules would limit standby power to one watt, and would apply to most electronic appliances and devices by 2003. The list of products potentially affected is staggering, ranging from personal computers and cell phone chargers to stereos and video games. Given that Underwriters Laboratories evaluates over 18,000 product types, the number of products subject to the regulation could run easily into the thousands.

The congressional directive also differs from what President Bush ordered earlier this week. Bush instructed only that the federal government's purchases be more energy efficient. The House bill, on the other hand, would limit the choice of individual consumers.

The proposed rules are but the latest in a series of energy conservation standards imposed by the federal government since passage of the 1987 National Appliance Energy Conservation Act. Today, almost every low-tech item around the house that plugs in or fires up - air conditioners, ovens, dishwashers, and clothes washers, to name a few - have been regulated. In many instances, the energy standards have raised product costs and compromised performance and reliability, overshadowing the often-modest energy savings. For instance, the cost of washing machines will increase by almost $250, and central air conditioners by some $335 thanks to rules adopted earlier this year.

Having exhausted the more prosaic appliances, high-tech devices that use stand-by power are now in Washington's sights. Supporters of regulation treat standby power as wasted energy, even demonizing products that use it as "energy vampires." Yet, it is crucial to many functions consumers find beneficial. Standby power runs clocks and allows programmable devices to store information for later use. It also reduces warm-up times and provides such conveniences as remote control. Furthermore, additional features being developed will also require standby power.

Standby power averages 6.7 watts per appliance, research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory indicates. Some in the industry predict the proposed one-watt limit would result in performance problems for televisions, VCRs and DVD players, camcorder chargers, satellite boxes, stereos, answering machines, modems, laptop chargers, and video game systems. The Consumer Electronics Association anticipates price increases averaging nearly $18 on products ranging from cordless phones to laser printers.

Most disturbing of all is the probable impact on future innovation. Who knows what high-tech advances will be delayed or lost due to the arbitrary one-watt limit? At the same time, the energy savings from these measures will be miniscule.

Consumer electronics use only about 3 percent of the nation's energy, and only a fraction of that amount will be reduced by limiting standby usage. Most households would be lucky to save a few dollars a month, thus even a small increase in product costs or reduction in performance will make this a bad deal overall. (Not to mention the obvious fact that if it were a good deal, no federal mandate would be needed.)

This proposal should serve as a wake-up call to those who see the New Economy as immune from the vagaries of the Old Politics. Whatever the menace from so-called energy vampires, they pale in comparison to that from the on-going regulatory horror show on Capitol Hill.

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