SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Visit any electronics store and it's clear that flat-screen TVs are among their best sellers — and that they hope consumers continue a years-long tradition of upgrading their home entertainment systems for the Super Bowl.
Many large TVs are energy hogs, however, and California regulators want to get the biggest offenders off store shelves.
The California Energy Commission is expected to adopt rules this summer requiring retailers by 2011 to sell only TVs that meet guidelines of the federal Energy Star program, which is generally voluntary. The proposal includes labeling that tells California buyers how much of their utility bill goes to powering their flat-screen.
"That's one of the things nobody even talks about," said Doug Pongrazc, a chef who was shopping for a flat-screen TV recently at a Best Buy store in the Sacramento area. "How much electricity do these things suck up?"
TV dealers are warning that consumers will simply buy their sets online if they can't find the models they want in California stores. The rules would be the country's first mandatory energy standards for televisions and would further tighten in 2013.
California utilities and environmental groups say the rules will play a key role in reducing electricity use as consumers buy larger TVs and bars and restaurants install more flat-screens to draw customers. Serving a population of nearly 38 million, California's uneven energy supplies often result in threats of blackouts on the hottest days.
"In the old days, it was easy to look around the house and see that a refrigerator was the dominant guzzler," said Art Rosenfeld, a California energy commissioner who pioneered the state's appliance standards in the early 1970s. "TVs alone are now 10 percent of a household's use."
Including cable boxes, game consoles, speakers, DVD players and digital video recorders, a premium entertainment system can consume nearly $200 worth of electricity each year, according to the energy commission, though most households pay much less. The average cost of powering a single TV for a year ranges from $35 to $75, said Adam Gottlieb, a spokesman for the Energy Commission.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co., California's largest utility and a major backer of the standards, says home electronics ought be part of the state's energy conservation efforts.
"We want people to have the entertainment they want, the kind of things that make life better, but there's a way to do it smartly," said Duane Larson, director of customer energy efficiency at PG&E. "It's much more cost-efficient to have (companies) make energy-efficient products than it is to site and build power plants that will also have environmental impacts."
The average plasma TV uses more than three times as much energy as an old cathode-ray tube set, and a 48-inch plasma TV can draw more power than a large refrigerator — even if the set is used only a few hours a day, California regulators said.
Liquid-crystal display, or LCD, TVs guzzle a little less — about 43 percent more energy than tube sets, according to a study by PG&E. LCDs now account for about 90 percent of the 4 million TVs sold in California annually.
Rear-projection TVs, which fall between LCDs and plasmas in energy use, also would be covered by the new standards.
Retailers and manufacturers say many newer flat-screen TVs use less power than tube sets, noting that 100 available models already go beyond the standards California wants to reach by 2013. The problem is that the best-quality screens use the most electricity.
Industry leaders also say the proposed standards threaten to limit consumer choice, drive shoppers to the Internet and put specialty retailers out of business. Nearly a quarter of all flat-screen TVs — and all but one plasma TV on the market today — would not be allowed for sale in California once the rules are fully implemented, according to the Plasma Display Coalition.
"It's setting a limit that many TVs that are larger and more fully featured could not meet," said Doug Johnson, a technology expert at the Consumer Electronics Association. "It appears to be an effort to really regulate entertainment, not energy use."
Manufacturers say California should stick with voluntary programs. Energy Star, launched for televisions in November, already is driving competition for energy-efficient TVs nationwide, they say.
Independent retailers, who sell mostly high-end, big-screen TVs, say their customers will shop elsewhere if California adopts the TV standards, and industry experts say the state could lose between $87 million and $130 million in annual sales and income tax revenue right away.
"Customers who come in to my store have already done their research," said Leon Soohoo, owner of Paradyme Sound and Vision, a Sacramento electronics retailer. "My fear is if they ban these desirable television sets from the California market, I am out of that business. But yet it doesn't stop the trade because people can still buy on the Internet or from out-of-state retailers."