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The Environmental Protection Agency introduced its first complete refresh of its Energy Star specification for computers. The EPA estimates that over the next five years, the updated Energy Star computer spec will save American businesses and consumers US$1.8 billion in energy costs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the emissions of 2.7 million cars.

The computer Energy Star spec, designed to help save the environment and save consumers money, was first introduced in 1992. Now in its fourth iteration, the spec has broadened its scope to encompass a wider breadth of computer usage. The EPA says that only the most energy-efficient computing products will qualify for the Energy Star label.

Rethinking power savings

The new spec has been in the works for two years. Energy Star has evolved into an international platform; the European Union uses it, as does Canada and many Asian countries. “We’ve done a major overhaul of the spec. All of our international partners were talking more about energy efficiency,” says Katharine Kaplan, product development manager for energy star IT and consumer electronics. “In the past we focused on standby and power management. But we found that power management was being disabled [by users]. So we focused in on a couple of different opportunities for power savings.” Power management puts your PC into a low-power sleep mode.

“Computers spend the majority of their time in idle mode, and we hadn’t paid any attention to the idle mode before this. The new requirements focus in on idle mode–when the computer is on and in use, but it’s not actively crunching data–as well as sleep mode, and standby mode (when the computer is off, but still plugged in),” says Kaplan. “Before, you had to power down to a maximum wattage when not in use [to meet Energy Star guidelines]. Now, we’ve set targets and maximums for use in different operating modes.” Computer makers have to meet these efficiency targets to get the Energy Star logo.

One of the big changes in the requirements of Energy Star 4: Newly qualified computers must include a more energy-efficient power supply.

“By including a requirement for 80 percent efficient power supplies in our spec, we’re hoping to make 80 percent efficient the standard,” says Kaplan, adding that “There is some added cost to make that power supply more efficient.” The EPA got the idea to include this requirement from the existing 80 Plus initiative. “What we’ve tried to do is emphasize the value in efficiency.”

Buying Energy Star today

If you want to make sure you’re buying a product that meets the latest Energy Star specs, look for the Energy Star logo. The spec now requires companies to display the logo on the product, and on packaging and related materials, such as product literature (previously, such display was optional).

At launch, 122 desktop and notebook PCs met the Energy Star 4.0 qualification. Additional products are undergoing testing now; visit the qualified product list for the latest information.

Interestingly, the vast majority–102–of those 122 qualified products are notebooks, observes Kaplan. Big-name notebook makers with models approved for the Energy Star include Dell, Gateway, Lenovo, Acer, Toshiba, and Hewlett-Packard. Dell, Gateway, and HP also have desktop models.

The EPA expects 25 percent of computer products, or less, to qualify for Energy Star under the 4.0 spec–down from the current 98 percent of products that qualify. “We expect that rate to jump up quickly, though, because there’s so much innovation in this space, and companies are so responsive [to Energy Star],” says Kaplan.

Computer manufacturers have good reason to be paying attention to Energy Star. “Manufacturers are telling us that customers are increasingly asking for energy-efficient products. Many large companies and institutional purchases now require Energy Star,” Kaplan notes. “And the European Union issued a requirement in July that government purchases be Energy Star-compliant.”

Future of Energy Star

The latest Energy Star spec is being released in two phases. Today marked the first phase, also referred to as tier one; and development is already under way on tier two.

In the first phase, says Kaplan, the EPA concentrated on idle mode. Now the agency is turning its attention to PCs in what it calls active mode, which is when the PC is actively processing data.

One of the obstacles has been determining how to develop a test for active mode. However, by the time the second phase of Energy Star 4.0 comes into effect in 2009, that should no longer be a roadblock.

“We’re working with the industry to develop a benchmark–a way of exercising your computer in a way that captures the average use patterns and the average experience of an office user, for example,” says Kaplan. “This forthcoming benchmark will help us look at all modes of [computer] operations. This work is being done by industry groups Ecma International and BAPCo, and we’re actively participating in the process. We hope to make use of that benchmark assessment tool in our tier two Energy Star 4.0 specification in 2009.”

Also on the table for tier two: Expanding the spec to include game consoles. The EPA approached game console makers in the first phase of the specification, but didn’t hear much interest from manufacturers. And, admits Kaplan, “Game consoles are not likely going to be able to meet this spec. But now the game console makers are talking with us, and they’re working with us now and looking for efficiency opportunities.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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