EnergyStar Computer Spec 4.0 Finalized

The Silent Front
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What sort of impact will this new specification have?

First of all, the EnergyStar logo is going to mean something again. If you buy a certified system, you will be getting one of the most efficient systems in it's class.

Second, it is likely to increase the overall efficiency of computers in general. The US government, one of the largest system buyers in the world, uses EnergyStar certified machines almost exclusively. Most large computer integrators have already committed to offering certified products by the time the new specifications come into effect. Hopefully the huge market represented here will spur imitation and innovation, and some of these gains will trickle down into the majority of systems and components. Perhaps in a few years, this standard will be just as meaningless as the current one, met by the vast majority of computers on the market.

The original compliance target for the new standards was 20-25% of all new systems. With the spec now complete, and somewhat less stringent, has that target changed at all? The EPA states that the levels included in the final spec

"...translate to an overall 24.4% qualification rate based on EPA's dataset. This dataset represented existing and next generation platforms and was based on manufacturer data and data gathered through EPA testing. The qualification rate is slightly lower for desktops and slightly higher for notebooks."

How many units would comply for the new certification if it were implemented today? The EPA response:

"Many existing models are able to meet the idle, sleep, and standby requirements today. However, a more limited set of models will also meet the ES internal power supply efficiency requirements. Just last week a major manufacturer announced the intention to release a selection of products that would meet all aspects of ES 4.0 requirements six months before these requirements become effective. EPA estimates that at least 25% of total products sold will meet the ES requirements once they are effective July 20, 2007."

Finally a bit of marketing PR about the new specification from EPA:

"The new ES specifications for desktop and notebook computers and related equipment that are expected to save U.S. households and businesses more than $1.8 billion in energy costs over the next 5 years and avoid greenhouse gas emissions equal to taking more than 2.7 million cars from the road. [Editor's Note: To put this in perspective, there are ~270 million cars on the road in the US today.] If every computer purchased by businesses meets the new ES requirements in effect next year, businesses will save $1.2 billion over the lifetime of their new computers, equal to lighting 730 million square feet of U.S. commercial building space each year. Government agencies buying ES will also garner big savings. If the government sector buys only computers that meet the new ES requirements, this sector will save nearly 3 billion kWh each year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4.4 billion pounds each year."

There are some major disappointments.

With the creation of so many categories, the significance of the Energy Star logo is much less meaningful than the original proposal, which was simple and effective: "If a computer bears the logo, it draws <60W at idle".

The biggest disappointment is that there is no differentiation in the labeling for different classes of ES certified computers. In our view, awareness of the classification is critical. Here's an example of why:

Even if a gaming machine qualifies as an EnergyStar under Category C, it could still use nearly twice as much power at idle as a standard desktop that doesn't qualify under Category A. To be specific, a gaming machine that draws 95W qualifies for EnergyStar while a standard desktop that draws 51W does not qualify. There is no difference in logos to tell a consumer which class a particular EnergyStar product belongs to, even though the requirements vary so widely.

(This also has the effect of actually penalizing integrators who use, for example, a dual-core processor and 512MB of RAM as opposed to 1GB. Suddenly, since their computer no longer meets the requirements for Category B, and they no longer qualify for EnergyStar certification in Category A, despite actually having saved a few watts by removing memory.)

Yes, the new spec is better than the old one, but without close attention by consumers, it's potentially quite misleading. An Energy Star tag does not automatically signify the most efficient PC; only the most efficient one in its class. Are consumers so clear on these class distinctions? Will the Energy Star program make consumers aware?

The EPA's position is that they've had a user friendly one-logo policy since the start, and that's not changing. Their aim is to identify the energy efficient products in each category, because their perception is that features and functionality drive computer purchases; a consumer looking at a gaming PC won't compare it to a standard desktop. Hence, an Energy Star logo on an energy guzzler identifies it as the less guzzly of the energy guzzlers — never mind that it still consumes more energy than most other computers without the Energy Star logo in other classes of PCs. We're told it is an imperfect, transitional system that will be improved.

As to the possibility of a consumer saying, "Well, this gaming PC is an Energy Star, so not only is it more powerful than that ordinary desktop, it's also more energy efficient"... the EPA says it's always up to the consumer to do their due diligence, to research what the Energy Star spec means in this case. The details of each ES qualifying computer will be posted in a central database, much like monitors here: http://www.energystar.gov/ia/products/prod_lists/monitors_prod_list.xls

Another possible problem is found in the third-party testing requirements, or lack thereof. All licensees are required to test their own products, and submit the results to the EPA. While this reduces the agencies' workloads significantly, it also creates some potential for misreporting, accidental or otherwise. The same procedure applies for all Energy Star product categories.

Conclusions

The next step for the program is still unclear. Everything described above is part of the "Tier one" specifications. Tier 2, which comes into effect on January 1, 2009, is still a completely unknown quantity. There are a few interesting items on the agenda: creating standards for servers, blade units and handhelds, revising the idle numbers and category definitions to reflect changes in hardware requirements, and so on, but nothing concrete.

It's safe to say that power efficiency in computing is on the rise, even without EnergyStar 4.0:

  • CPU makers have their power needs under control, and we are unlikely to see any more mainstream 130W beasts for the desktop.
  • "Performance-per-Watt" is the latest and greatest buzzword.
  • Notebooks, which are far more efficient than desktops, have been outselling desktops for a year and the trend continues.
  • Power supply efficiency is creeping steadily upwards.

EnergyStar 4.0, while far from perfect, is a step in the right direction in encouraging more energy efficient PCs and more energy conscious decision making among computer consumers. Let's hope that the current diffusion of the spec's original intent can be sharpened in the future.

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SPCR Articles of Related Interest

A New Energy Star... in 2007
The State of the Industry, March 2006: Through Silent Eyes

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