Ed. Note: This piece has been edited significantly from its original version to reflect factual inaccuracies related to exactly what the California Energy Commission has proposed. We regret the earlier error.
The Consumer Electronics Association has publicly reacted to California regulators' new requirements on inefficient TVs by saying "You're all dumb, with about the same grasp on technology as Homer Simpson." I'm paraphrasing, of course, but the CEA's outrage is worth closer examination.
The California Energy Commission (CEC) just voted to limit sales of flat-screen TVs to those that meet its energy efficiency criteria, starting in 2011. Though there's plenty of debate to be had over whether this is about efficiency or energy management and budget, the regulations seem mostly reasonable.
Not to Consumer Electronics Association's SVP for industry affairs Jason Oxman, though. He says his association is "extremely disappointed" in the decision. So, presumably, are its vested interests. Oxman goes on to say that this is simply "bad policy" that's "dangerous for the Californian economy" and decries the fact that "The commissioners repeatedly rebuffed attempts from the CE industry to provide input or correct the litany of errors and flawed assumptions upon which these misguided regulations are based."
CEC spokesman Adam Gottlieb tells Fastcompany via e-mail, "This regulation will save consumers money, conserve energy, and achieve it with available technology. Today, Californians can choose from more than 1,000 energy efficient televisions of all sizes and types that meet the proposed 2011 standard and do not cost more than other models. Californians buy four million TVs each year and deserve the most energy efficient products. And, there is no evidence to suggest the regulation will reduce sales of televisions."
But what of these flawed assumptions? Are the HDTVs we're all buying like crazy just really energy-munching monsters that are bad for the planet? The answer is, of course, no. The story is complicated, as you might expect, because it depends on what technology is powering your TV as much as how big it is. Oddly enough, those hulking old cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs we used to own are not too dissimilar in power-hungriness than some flat-screen TVs... so it's not that switch-over that's important. More telling is that CRTs were size-limited by technology and by how much space the damn things took up—a situation HDTVs don't suffer, hence we're all up-rating our TV screen size. And, roughly speaking, bigger screens do eat up more electricity, especially plasma ones since their energy-consuming light-emitting pixels scale up as you increase the size.
But different TVs of the same size from different makers use different amounts of power, and even within manufacturer product lists there's a great variation. Newer TVs that incorporate new lighting systems (like LEDs for LCD screens) also tend to eat less power, and that's a constant downwards trend exhibited as the screens themselves get shallower—since there's less room for cooling ventilation behind them.
In other words, Oxman is worried about the CEC draping a vast, complex field with a blanket ruling that bears little relation to the fine details of the products it affects.