This week, the California Energy Commission will consider new regulations that would require televisions sold in the state to be 33 percent more energy efficient by 2011 and 49 percent more efficient by 2013.
The move is in response to the proliferation of ever larger and cheaper flat-screen TVs, thanks both to the national switch from analog to digital cable and to the increasing availability of larger, cheaper flat screens that suck huge amounts of energy.
The commission, which will be deciding on the regulations at a Nov. 18 meeting, calculates that televisions and their accessories (DVRs, DVD players, cable boxes) account for about 15 percent of home energy use.
Some manufacturers have backed the proposed rules, but the trade group Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), of which the majority of manufacturers are members, is predictably opposed. The CEA claims the energy efficiency regulations would send TV sales plummeting, costing California $50 million in lost tax revenues and 4,600 lost jobs.
"Consumer electronics manufacturers have already dramatically reduced the amount of energy used by digital televisions — without regulation," said Gary Shapiro, CEA's president and CEO. "In less than two years, the energy efficiency of Energy Star TVs has improved by 41 percent. These successful efforts resulted from competition among manufacturers to reduce costs to consumers in the global marketplace — not government mandates."
Manufacturers of sets built around more efficient displays, however, are likely to see a sales boom.
Of the currently available sets, plasma screens are the most power hungry, consuming .34 watts per square inch, while LCD displays consume .27 watts per square inch, and rear-projection displays consume .13 watts per square inch.
Some of the latest LCD sets, backlit with light-emitting diodes (LEDs), however, are operating far more efficiently, and next generation organic light-emitting diode (OLED) sets blow the rest out of the water.
All the major electronics manufacturers — Sony, Samsung, Philips, LG — have OLED sets either on the market or in prototype form, and it's expected that by 2012 OLED televisions will be widely available. In addition to requiring less material because they need neither color filters nor backlighting, OLEDs are up to 40 percent more efficient than LCD displays per panel inch.
A diode is a very basic semiconductor, and light-emitting diodes are comprised of negatively and positively charged particles (typically aluminum-gallium-arsenide) that generate an electroluminescent layer (put more simply, light) when they interact with an electrical circuit.
Because LEDs generate their own light, LCD monitors and TV screens that use them as their light source require less energy and can be made much thinner, thus conserving on the materials used to make the set. Although there are televisions on the market that claim to be "LED TVs," there's no such thing: They are LCD displays that are backlit by LEDs.
Unlike plasma and OLED displays, where each pixel is its own light source, in LCD displays each pixel has to be illuminated from behind, or backlit. In traditional LCD displays, this is achieved using cold-cathode fluorescent lights that require an external power source.
OLED televisions, on the other hand, are actually a different display technology. OLEDs are made from organic (carbon-based) materials that emit light when electricity is run through them. Because they are made with organic compounds they are able to emit various colors, whereas LCD displays require a filter to change colors. Requiring neither external lighting nor a color filter, OLEDs are not only more energy efficient to operate, but also require less energy to make, given that they are made with fewer materials.
Sony released the first OLED television in the United States last year and followed up last month with a thinner version of its Bravia LCD display, equipped with LED backlighting. This sort of hybrid display, which uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as its additional lighting source, cuts down on the typically high power requirements of an LCD display.
Given that OLEDs are still very expensive to manufacture, which has also kept manufacturers from creating giant displays to compete with the super-sized LCD and plasma screens on the market, it's likely that we'll see other manufacturers taking this half-step toward energy efficiency first. LG has predicted that by 2012 its OLED sets will cost about 50 percent more than LCD sets, but that by 2016, OLEDs will cost 20%-30% less than LCDs.
In the meantime, manufacturers are going to have to figure out how to deliver more energy efficient televisions to consumers in the sizes and at the price point that they've grown accustomed.
Despite the protestations of the CEA, that won't actually be that hard to do. The proposed standards will not apply to sets larger than 58 inches partly as a concession to the industry, and according to CEC spokesman Adam Gottlieb, more than 1,000 models smaller than 58 inches that meet the new efficiency guidelines are already on the market.