Seeking an Energy-Efficient TV? Yes, It's Confusing

But help may be on the way under the new energy law.

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We received a letter challenging our recent story on the energy-gobbling ways of big flat-screen TVs. I asked both the Electric Power Research Institute and Noah Horowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council for help on answering the reader's questions—the same ones that many consumers might be puzzling over.

I just replaced an old 20-inch cathode-ray with a new 19-inch LCD TV. Your story says LCDs use 75 percent more power. But the data plate on the back of the new TV says it uses only 80 watts, compared with 120 watts on the old TV. That's 33 percent less power!

Unfortunately, you can pretty much ignore those data on the back of the TV—at least as a measure of energy efficiency. They don't refer to how much power the TV uses but rather to how much power it can take without overheating. And manufacturers build various safety factors into those numbers, making comparisons meaningless.

But the energy conservation folks at my office told me that the new flat-panel computer monitors, which are LCDs, use less energy than the old monitors, which are cathode-ray like the old TVs. Here's a link to Microsoft's website, where Don McCall of Dell says that flat-panel monitors use less energy than conventional monitors. It seems to me that replacing cathode-ray TV sets with similar-sized LCD units would have significant energy conservation benefits!

Ah, but reader, you've stumbled upon the key problem. Most people are not like you, replacing their old TV sets with "similar-sized LCD units." They are buying 42-to 47-inch units. Bigger image, greater resolution —using more power than the old TV you used to have. EPRI's estimate, based on its own test data, was that a new big-screen LCD TV would consume 350 to 400 kilowatt-hours per year, compared with 200 kWh for an old-fashioned tube. The plasma screens in EPRI's test fared worse—about 600 kWh per year. You can probably add to that 250 kWh per year being consumed by the set-top box from your cable or satellite company. (Have you ever noticed how warm that thing gets? It's burning energy.)

In comparison, the average annual use of a new Energy Star refrigerator is 442 kWh. The refrigerator used to be considered the appliance that consumes the most energy in the household, but obviously, these days it has competition.

At least when you're picking out a refrigerator, you have some data—the big yellow EnergyGuide labels administered by the Federal Trade Commission—to compare the energy consumption figures of different models, should you be inclined to do so. There's no information like that today for TV shoppers, but that's going to change. In a little-noted section of the energy bill just passed by Congress and signed by President Bush, the FTC has 18 months to come up with labeling or some other energy disclosure plan for televisions, personal computers, cable or satellite set-top boxes, stand-alone digital video recorder boxes, and personal computer monitors. Stay tuned, because the law also gives the FTC some wiggle room if the agency finds that such a plan is not "technologically or economically feasible" or is not going to help consumers.

Another important development is on its way: In early February, the government will announce the final standards on which TVs will qualify for the Energy Star label. Previously, the Energy Star on TVs certified only that a set used little power when it was in standby mode and didn't take into account how much power it used when turned on!

But if all proceeds as planned, later this year consumers can begin looking for Energy Star if they want to choose a set in the top 25 percent of energy efficiency performers on the market. That will be timely, because an increase in TV buying is expected about then, with all-digital TV coming in February 2009. A better viewing experience, so they say. But you may well be using more energy along the way, if you aren't careful.