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Going ‘Green'?

Consumer electronics are going green, and the HDTV market is no exception to the trend. While plasma flat panels continue to consume more electricity than LCD models, both technologies have made notable strides in energy conservation.

For example, "eco modes" dim the picture to save energy when the viewer doesn't need full brightness, working in much the same way as a draft mode on a printer. Automatic ambient light sensors can adjust an image's brightness, saving energy. And plasma manufacturers have developed some more-efficient technologies that reduce the power a plasma television consumes.

Most manufacturers are not shy about touting their "greenness," whenever possible. To check for lower power consumption, look for the Energy Star 3.0 logo. To qualify for this optional program, run jointly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, an HDTV must not exceed a specified maximum power consumption limit. This limit differs somewhat depending on the set's screen size, and the Energy Star program breaks out HDTVs into three segments: smaller than 40 inches, 40 inches to 58 inches, and larger than 58 inches. (Click for a list of models that qualify for Energy Star logos.)

The next revision of Energy Star, Version 4.0, is due to take effect on May 1, 2010, and Version 5.0 will replace it on May 1, 2012. These new specifications further reduce the maximum allowable amount of energy that a qualifying set can use.

Other industry groups are promoting their own energy consumption guidelines and logos. The LCD TV Association's "Green TV" initiative currently requires that a TV have an ambient light sensor that will automatically adjust the screen's brightness in response to room lighting conditions; dimming the screen in darkened rooms helps save energy (more stringent guidelines are in the works). So far, only LG Electronics has qualified its televisions--four lines, to be precise--for this logo. Of course, the "Green TV" logo alone doesn't determine whether a TV has this capability: Sony's VE5 series of televisions has an ambient light sensor, too, among other eco-friendly modes.

Meanwhile, the California Energy Commission (CEC) has proposed legislation dictating its own energy consumption limits for televisions. Differing from optional programs like Energy Star and Green TV, the CEC's proposed regulations would be mandatory. Under the CEC's proposal, it would be illegal to sell nonconforming products in the state of California. (Because California is so big, such regulations could afffect sets nationwide, as well.)

The CEC has stated plans to make a final decision about the specifications--which would likely place limits on the maximum operating power consumption for all flat-panel televisions, as well as other modes such as standby--this November. All flat-panel TVs--especially larger plasmas--could be impacted by this legislation; some models meet the requirements, and others do not. Meanwhile, plasma TVs remain, on average, less-expensive than same-size LCD TVs (a 50-inch plasma can be about $300 less than a comparable LCD).

According to some sources, consumers can save $15 to $30 a year on their electricity bills by choosing a set with lower power consumption. This may not seem like a big deal, but consider that the average U.S. consumer keeps a television for ten years or longer. A savings of $150 to $300 on a set that originally cost $500 to $1000 is a significant amount.

Whither OLED?

What about the new, revolutionary flat-panel technologies--such as OLED--that you may have heard of and that are supposed to arrive "any day now"? The answer is that they're not coming any time soon, at least not a way that will have any significant impact at present on your buying decision.

In recent years, we've had an alphabet soup of new technologies, including FED and SED, paraded around at fancy demos. These promising advances have fizzled for many reasons, but perhaps the unrelenting decline in LCD and plasma prices is most to blame for their failure to come to market. A set that was targeted to sell for $2500 a few years ago must now sell for under $1000, wiping out any profit that would have been made at the higher price. As LCD and plasma manufacturers continue to improve production efficiencies and economies of scale, it becomes increasingly difficult for new display technologies to gain a foothold.

Next: OLED--Will It Catch On?

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