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Hasta La Vista, Power-Hungry TVs


California is set to outlaw flat-screen models that soak up energy. Manufacturers and merchants are fuming

How green is your TV? If you're like most people, you have no idea how much energy your television uses. Yet as screens have grown bigger in recent years, the amount of electricity gobbled up by TVs has soared. The trend worries some regulators and utilities. They say big-screen energy hogs are taxing the power system and consumers are unwilling to buy energy-efficient sets since they often cost several hundred dollars more.

California plans to force the issue. As early as Nov. 4, the state is expected to set new guidelines that would require retailers by 2011 to sell only sets that consume about a third less power than they do today. Manufacturers and retailers say the new rules could force them to pull large-screen plasma TVs and many other models off store shelves. But California's Energy Commission says it's confident manufacturers will be able to retool their products to meet the deadline and that tighter standards are necessary.

The cost to power a big-screen TV may not seem high for one family. A 42-inch plasma model turned on for the average 4.5 hours a day uses about $4.50 in electricity a month, or $54 a year. But the extra demand adds up across millions of homes. "If we did nothing, we'd be looking at 38 million people [doubling TV] energy usage in the state by 2020," says Adam Gottlieb, spokesman for the Energy Commission. The commission figures the new standards, which are backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, would conserve enough electricity by 2013 to power about 864,000 homes annually.

Consumer electronics companies and retailers are up in arms over California's proposed rules. They say that adding new technology to lower energy consumption on TVs will force them to raise prices. That could stop consumers from buying new TVs or send them to the Internet to purchase sets from out of state. In addition, the California mandate may force TV makers to cut back on new features that require additional energy, such as the ability to surf the Web from the TV. "Imposing arbitrary limits deprives the consumer of buying the television they want, at a price that's affordable to each individual," says Douglas Johnson, senior director of technology policy for the Consumer Electronics Assn.

"SLEDGEHAMMER OF REGULATION"

Johnson says consumers should be able to decide whether they want energy-efficient televisions or not, just like they do with automobiles. He points out that electronics companies already offer a wide variety of energy-saving products. Many consumers do opt to buy sets that meet the Energy Star standard, a federal gauge of energy efficiency that is voluntary rather than mandatory. In fact, 98 out of the 100 best-selling televisions at retailer Best Buy (BBY) meet the Energy Star standard. "The commission is working with one tool in its toolbox, and that's the sledgehammer of regulation," Johnson says. "We think there are other ways of supporting energy efficiency."

Still, gadget-loving shoppers should be on notice: Big-screen TVs may just be the start. Gottlieb says regulators could impose new power-consumption rules for digital video recorders, game consoles, Blu-ray players, and other gizmos. The reason, he says, is that electronics are gobbling up an increasing amount of electricity, adding up to as much as 10% of the average home's electric bill. Big-screen televisions, Gottlieb says, are just "the low-hanging fruit."

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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