Red Tape and Tech

Lieberman Op-Ed in National Review Online

During the tragedies of September 11th, our new technologies delivered extraordinary value. E-mails sent to handheld devices carried by people in the World Trade Center helped some to escape. Cell-phone calls alerted passengers on the fourth hijacked plane that the other three had been crashed into major buildings, and led to the heroic takeover of an aircraft likely headed towards the U.S. Capitol or White House. Fiber-optic cable and satellites conveyed a stream of information that saved lives and prevented panic in ways that would have been impossible even a decade ago.Given this bravura performance by technology, it would be folly to allow the political aftermath of the attacks to impede continued improvement. But this just may happen if a host of proposed federal energy-conservation measures are enacted.Even before September 11th, an effort was underway to regulate the energy used by high-tech electronic devices. On that very day, a Department of Energy (DOE) hearing on the future of energy-conservation standards — abruptly ended after an hour when news of the disasters arrived — lasted long enough for the agency to pass around a list of potential new regulatory targets. It included desktop personal computers, monitors, servers, laser and inkjet printers, and other consumer and office electronics.In addition, the House version of the energy bill, passed last August, restricts “standby power,” the energy used by electronic devices when not in actual use. If enacted, these measures would adversely affect products that use standby power for such functions as storing programmed information for later use, providing instant-on capability, or maintaining access to the Internet.Now, in the aftermath of the attacks, the mantra of “energy security” has triggered even stronger calls for conservation standards. It is possible that a host of consumer electronics will soon join more than a dozen lower tech items — refrigerators, clothes washers and dryers, air conditioners, water heaters, fluorescent lighting, and others — that are subject to DOE energy regulations.The track record of these existing measures is mediocre. Appliance standards have slightly raised energy efficiency levels beyond what would have likely prevailed in their absence. But these regulations have increased the cost of affected appliances, and in some cases have adversely impacted product choice, features, performance, and reliability.Extending this scheme to high-tech electronics would pose similar risks to affordability and quality, and because these products use little energy in the first place the potential energy savings would be picayune.Energy conservation standards are particularly problematic for the fast-changing tech sector. In contrast to refrigerators and clothes washers and the like — appliances that had decades to develop and mature before being constrained by federal energy-use restrictions — computers, peripherals, and other electronic products are relatively new and are still undergoing rapid innovation. Thus, the resultant changes in energy use requirements cannot be easily determined in advance. Energy standards imposed at this time and based on the limits of current knowledge are sure to invoke the iron law of unintended consequences, jeopardizing future innovation.The terrorist attacks will have a profound effect on policy for a long time. Nonetheless, a bad idea before September 11th is still a bad idea, and wrapping the tech sector in the red tape of federal energy-conservation standards remains so.