Hidden Mischief In Bush’s Energy Plan

Lieberman Op-Ed in Investors Business Daily<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


The Bush administration's energy plan, currently making its way through Congress, contains a number of disparate elements. Some are good, others not, but the overall package seems to be getting worse with each addition.

Most troublesome of all these recent add-ons is a little-noticed provision that will regulate power used by consumer electronics.

Specifically, this new provision targets standby power – the small amount of electricity consumed when a product is not in use. Many consumer electronics use standby power, including televisions, videocassette recorders, digital video disc players, stereos, personal computers and peripherals, telephones, answering machines and others.

Branded as a wasteful energy “vampire,” in truth standby power performs many useful functions. It powers clocks, allows programmable devices to store information for later use, reduces warm-up times and allows conveniences like remote control. No doubt, new product features will be invented that will also need standby power.

Currently, standby power averages 6.1 watts, according to a survey of 61 manufacturers conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association, or CEA. The new rule would arbitrarily place a ceiling of one watt by 2003, applicable to just about every electrical household item.

What this requirement may do to the price, performance and features of such products has received too little attention. And for the tech sector, currently struggling to get out of its slump, this potentially costly and innovation-stifling rule could not come at a worse time.

In many respects, the standby power provisions are reminiscent of the 1.6 gallon-per-flush toilet standard enacted by Congress in 1992. The toilet provision was also quietly tacked onto a large energy bill with almost no debate.

Washington was legislating how much water toilets can use. But by now, millions of Americans, either moving into a new house or replacing an old toilet, have received an unpleasant wake-up call.

In addition to costing more than their predecessors, many low-flush toilets clog more easily and require extra cleaning. Others say they now must flush more than once, which, in addition to being annoying, cuts into the water-conservation purpose behind the law. And since toilets account for only 2.4% of the nation's overall water consumption, the savings have been too miniscule to justify the cost and inconvenience.

Here, too, consumer electronics manufacturers fear cost increases averaging nearly $ 18 per product, ranging from $ 1 for a cordless phone to $ 60 for a laser printer, according to the CEA. Many manufacturers predict performance problems, especially for satellite boxes, stereos, answering machines, external PC modems, printers and video game systems. And, analogous to water-saving toilets, residential standby power represents no more than a small percentage of overall energy use. Thus the new rule is unlikely to save enough juice to make it worth the effort.

The toilet law also demonstrates the need to nip these bad ideas in the bud. Despite the low regard the public holds for low flush toilets, efforts to repeal the measure have thus far been unsuccessful. This is due in part to manufacturers that long since made the switch to the low-flush versions, and don't want to incur the expense of going back.

If it proves problematic, the standby power rule would likely prove as tough to reverse.

Therefore, now is the time for Congress to pull the plug, not on consumer electronics that use standby power, but on this poorly conceived measure that is sure to do more harm than good.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.


Copyright © 2001 Investors Business Daily