Schwarzenegger to television makers: Go green or stay out of California

First it was the makers of gas-guzzling autos. Next, the Governator came down hard on coal-fired power plants. Now, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has multinational electronics makers in his executive crosshairs. His mission? To rid the Golden State of big, energy-hogging televisions that suck up so much juice in brown-out prone California.

As the Golden State goes, so might go the nation. With what is effectively the eighth-largest economy in the world, California policies can force compliance in consumer electronics manufacturing and drive a green energy agenda like no other state of the union.

Written by the California Energy Commission (CEC), the proposed California regulation could pass as early as Nov. 4, according to The Los Angeles Times. It would put in place a set of energy efficiency mandates for large-screen TVs that would effectively ban the current generation of plasma TVs with screens over 40 inches. The law would require a 33 percent improvement in energy efficiency for all TVs sold starting Jan. 1, 2011, and a whopping 50 percent improvement for sets sold starting Jan. 1, 2013.

The numbers behind the proposal are eye-opening. According the Commission's website, "In California, televisions (along with DVRs, DVD players, and cable/satellite boxes) now consume about 10 percent of a home's electricity. Increasing sales of flat screen televisions, larger screen sizes, the growing number of TVs per household, and increased daily use of televisions all contribute to greater electricity consumption." There are at present 35 million TVs in California, by most estimates.

Surprisingly, a law that could literally tell red-blooded sports fans what type of TV they can buy has caused little public uproar. Perhaps Californians, battered by a 12 percent unemployment rate and massive state budget cuts, aren't feeling like buying a big screen these days?

However, the Consumer Electronics Association, the industry trade group representing manufacturers, has been staunchly against the mandates, arguing that it pushes too hard and too fast for energy improvements that will dramatically jack up the cost of sets and hurt electronics sales, not to mention already-ailing electronics retailers and component manufacturers. In a hearing of the CEC on Oct. 13, CEA representative Douglas Johnson said, "The core concern here really has to do with the element of the Commission's proposed regulations that would impose a mandatory power consumption limit on televisions. Such regulation undercuts innovation, it does harm consumers, ultimately, and it certainly harms TV manufacturers in related industries."

Johnson also stated he believes that the current voluntary national Energy Star programs that encourage appliance efficiency by awarding Energy Star status to specific units was working just fine and that the CEC was relying on outdated data in making its assumptions about how much energy the state would really save by enforcing such a mandate. To some degree, Johnson is correct. Television manufacturers are actively embracing efficiency measures such as using low-energy light emitting diodes to replace other types of lighting modules in sets and building in dimming technologies that automatically dim portions of a screen not required to show light. All of these technologies do cost more than older technologies which have already achieved economics of scale.

Whether the manufacturers can make the mandate or not without extreme pain is a matter open for clear discussion. At the same October hearing, Kenneth Lowe, the Chief Technical Officer of flat-panel TV maker Vizio, said: "Today, several of our models already meet the proposed Tier 2 levels, and that are not scheduled to go into effect until Jan. 1, 2013. We are in the process of redesigning our other models so that the new designs will meet these levels by the CEC deadlines." Lowe and other estimated that the end cost to consumers would be roughly an additional $40 per set. Lowe should know: Vizio is the largest maker of flat-panel TVs and monitors in the U.S. and sells both budget and high-end lines.

If the disputed CEC numbers on energy consumption from TVs are correct, the wide-ranging impacts of this rule change could be profound. A 50 percent improvement of energy efficiency applied to a product set that consumes 10 percent of total energy implies, over time, a maximum five percent energy savings. That's an enormous savings, one that could reduce the need for hundreds of new power plants around the country.

If forced to change their designs to comply with California regulations, set manufacturers will likely sell those same TVs elsewhere in the country and quickly upgrade their product lines to match the California rules. They almost have no choice, considering the size of the California market and the costs incurred by running one set of products for California and another for the rest of the country. And other states are likely to follow California's regulatory lead. The Governator may drive a Hummer, but it's a hybrid, and his eco-cred will only be burnished by this gambit to put the big boob tube on an energy diet.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at

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