Power down: DOE poised to order all computers, servers use less electricity

The Energy Department signaled Friday it intends to order new efficiency standards for all computers and servers in the United States.

A pair of documents published in the Federal Register said the DOE has “tentatively” ruled that a federal law designed to curtail consumer energy use, created in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, also covers computer and servers.

The proposal is open for public comment until Aug. 12. The department will then begin drafting the new rules if it decides to proceed with a final determination, a likely outcome given the pace of rules emerging on the heels of the climate change plan President Obama announced last month.

The president’s plan calls for stronger carbon emission regulations, stricter energy efficiency standards and more renewable energy on federal land. The effort relies on a series of executive actions, many of which have riled Republicans.

Since then, the DOE has issued a final rule for efficiency standards in federal commercial buildings and multifamily residential high-rises. And the Environmental Protection Agency has sent a revised greenhouse gas emissions rule for new power plants to the White House.

In its Friday filings, the agency said the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) permits it to impose compulsory performance standards for computers and a labeling program for servers so that they use less electricity.

Setting new mandatory standards is only possible if average household consumption tops 150 kilowatt-hours per year, total energy use exceeds 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours annually and if a labeling rule wouldn’t be enough to sway manufacturers to make or consumers to buy more energy-efficient products.

The math on computer energy use appears to open that option for the DOE.

In its filing, the department assumed residential computer use accounted for 30.3 billion kilowatt-hours of energy consumption annually spread among an estimated 104 million homes with at least one computer.

That works out to 291 kilowatt-hours of electricity use from computers each year, nearly twice the amount that would trigger a new federal standard.

As for servers, the DOE might not have recourse to enforce mandatory standards, though it could initiate a new labeling program.

That’s because it’s uncertain whether servers would exceed the 150 kilowatt-hour annual per-household energy consumption threshold.

It’s “very likely,” though, that energy consumption eclipses more than 100 kilowatt-hours per year in each home. That would allow the DOE to create a labeling scheme for servers under the EPCA.