California’s New TV Regulations Deserve Booby Prize

Published November 24, 2009

One would think it’s a tall order to out-regulate the European Union.

But California government technocrats managed to do so by passing a draconian rule that will outlaw 25 percent of the flat-screen television market in the formerly Golden State–and raise the prices of what’s left on the shelves.

By a unanimous 5-0 vote on November 18, the California Energy Commission (CEC) mandated every TV set 58 inches and smaller sold in the state must use 33 percent less energy than it does today by 2011 and 49 percent less by 2013.

The new rule means all 42-inch LCD TVs, a popular size, must use less than 183 watts by 2011 and less than 116 watts by 2013. Many models don’t meet that standard–the equivalent of running a couple of 100-watt light bulbs and the lamp on the nightstand. They will soon be as illegal as cocaine.

Plasma TVs, which are generally cheaper than LCD TVs, use even more energy. If you live in California and want one of those, the clock is ticking. And if Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) gets her way, every American will see the selection on the shelves at their local electronics store dwindle. When choices are artificially limited, prices inevitably rise.

Televisions account for only about 5 percent of the state’s electricity use. But as all Californians know, there is no “problem” so small it can’t be remedied with a sledgehammer by the state.

Californians live on the edge of perpetual energy crises, to be sure, always a heat wave away from brownouts when residents dare to cool their homes. But instead of building new power plants, especially nuclear reactors that contribute no greenhouse gas emissions, the state insists everyone cut back.

Like a good nanny, the CEC says the new rule is for Californians’ own good, trumpeting the whopping $2.50 a month residents will save on their energy bills. If you have to pay an extra $300 for that new TV the family’s been dreaming about … well, too bad. Unless you buy a new TV online or (gasp!) smuggle one across the state line.

The conclusion is obvious: A Californian’s liberty–the once-uncontroversial freedom to choose whatever TV you want–is worth less than the cost of a tall latte to the state’s rulers.

This usurpation of liberty is not only outrageous, it’s unnecessary. Television manufacturers have long strived to meet and exceed the “green” standards necessary to earn the Energy Star label voluntarily. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, “in less than two years, the energy efficiency of Energy Star digital TVs has been improved by more than 41 percent.”

That happy result was accomplished entirely through market forces, which keep prices down and increase consumer choice. California’s new rule, by contrast, will raise prices and reduce consumer choice.

And how did California manage to “out-Europe” Europe when it comes to oppressive TV energy standards? Not even the bureaucrats in the regulatory-happy EU dared to set specific wattage limits. That led Noah Horowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council–which pushed hard for the new California regulations–to lament that Europe’s standards were “not very aggressive” when compared to the planned California ones.

That’s not something you see every day. Too bad Californians can’t change the channel and instantly get a less-arrogant state government.

James G. Lakely ([email protected]) is co-director of the Center on the Digital Economy at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute.