HDTV has been an unqualified boon to the consumer electronics industry. But with the increasing Sturm und Drang over global warming as well as the less provocative but nonetheless critical problems of hazardous material disposal and electronics recycling, HDTV is also a potential nightmare for the environment.
As a result, the government, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), environmental groups and manufacturers are all working to create more eco-friendly HDTVs.
There are three major fronts in the battle to produce a greener HDTV: greater power efficiency, hazardous materials recycling, and packaging and shipping.
Depending on your engineering acumen and how closely one pays attention to the monthly utility bill, it may be surprising or not to know that an HDTV uses as much electricity as a refrigerator.
"TVs probably use roughly 1 percent of all national electricity," asserted Noah Horowitz of the watchdog Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "With all the wide range of channels on cable and satellite, people watching more DVDs and increasingly buying game consoles, it's a perfect storm resulting in more hours that our TV is on, and as a result, more energy is being consumed. If we cut the annual energy use of new TVs by 25 percent, we can cut the nation's electric bill by more than $1 billion a year."
Efforts to reduce this power drain have centered on screen backlighting, with a shift to cooler and more energy-efficient LED backlighting in microdisplay rear-projection TVs and LCD panels. Conventional wisdom holds that plasma is more of an energy-hog technology than LCD, but this is not true. "Plasma only uses as much power as necessary to light the screen," explained Jim Palumbo, president of the Plasma Display Coalition. "Therefore, the average power consumption of a plasma will always be less than the stated power in the manual. Other [TV] technologies use 100 percent of the stated power whether the picture is bright or dim — it's always on at the full stated power."
For DLP, LED backlighting is now supplanting hot mercury lamps, such as in the HL-S5679W 1,080p DLP ($3,999) from Samsung, which will begin shipping a half-dozen additional LED DLP models in April. Not only will LEDs and lasers save consumers from higher energy bills, the disposal of mercury-laden lamps becomes less of a disposal problem.
"We're not making claims at this stage that the LED itself is going to reduce power consumer substantially," noted Paul Frederickson of NuVision, "but the LED will last the life of the set. There are well over 2 million microdisplays sold each year, each needing replacement lamps and disposal of old lamps. That's 30-40 million lamps being needed in next four to five years. With LED technology, there's no worry about that kind of environmental impact."
But even now, LED is considered a transitional technology, soon to be superseded by even more energy-efficient lasers. Mitsubishi, for instance, is skipping past LEDs in its DLP HDTVs and going right to laser technology it is developing. The company's has already demonstrated its first laser-illuminated DLP set, due to become available by the end of this year. "Laser draws 35 percent less power than LED," explains David Naranjo, product development director for Mitsubishi, who says that a laser-based DLP HDTV would draw 75 percent less power than a 60-inch plasma.
LED and laser backlighting is merely one way to reduce power consumption in flat-panel HDTVs. Another is to reduce the number of components. "That allows you to make designs lighter and more efficient contributing to power savings," explained Mark Sharp, corporate environmental group manager for Panasonic. "Our current line is 15 to 35 percent more efficient than our line a year ago. We've made modifications to the panel design, the circuit design and the signal processing."
With new HDTVs provoking power consumption concerns, Energy Star plans to expand its familiar cyan sticker program that identifies the top 25 percent energy-efficient appliances to HDTVs. The problem has been agreeing to testing specifications to not only fairly measure the disparate HDTV technologies.
"The standard out there now is decades old and inappropriate for measuring the energy consumption of today's flat-panel digital televisions," stated Doug Johnson, CEA's technology policy senior director.
In fact, the old standard measures TV power consumption only in standby mode. A new testing standard is being developed by the century-old Geneva-based International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), with input from most major HDTV makers as well as the EPA, due to be finished next month. Hardware makers can then voluntarily submit sets to the EPA for testing and, they hope, receive an Energy Star sticker. The first Energy Star-certified HDTVs will likely appear on store shelves in mid-2008.
Ironically, EPA's announcement of this new Energy Star spec last year has prodded TV makers to initiate power saving technologies. "In the last year, we've seen a lot of interest in energy use for consumer electronics," observed Katharine Kaplan, consumer electronics and IT product manager, Energy Star. "Recent survey information tells us that consumers ... will pay up to 10 percent more for more energy-efficient home electronics."
"The industry is extremely competitive so companies may find a marketing advantage in providing Energy Star-qualified products," said CEA's Johnson. "We're motivated by a competitive market to offer the most energy-efficient products that we can," agreed Panasonic's Sharp.
Power savings are just one way to make a greener TV. Another way is to reduce the number of hazardous materials in each set, such as mercury lamps and lead solder. Most manufacturers adhere to the European Union's RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) laws, which require products to be lead-free, and to use minimal mercury, CFCs or "any material that has a material with a negative environmental factor," said Todd Richardson, marketing VP for Philips.
With less hazardous materials, new TVs are less likely to pose an environmental threat. However, discarded analog TVs are another story. According to NRDC's Noah Horowitz, "Each CRT TV may contain 4 pounds of lead. We need to get ahead of the curve and set up national policies and programs to collect and properly recycle these millions of units."
Except there is no national policy. So dozens of states have been considering varying "end-of-life" legislation that fall into three categories: disposal bans that prohibit CRTs from incinerators and landfills, take-back bills that require manufacturers to foot the recycling bill, and so-called ARFs (Advanced Recycling Fees), a purchase tax on consumers to pay for recycling. So far, only California has passed an ARF, which imposes a $6 fee for TVs with screens 15 inches and smaller, $8 on TVs with screens between 15 inches and 35 inches and $10 on all TVs with screens larger than 35 inches.
"This evolving patchwork of state e-recycling systems is not a long-term viable solution for our industry," stated Parker Brugge, senior director and environmental counsel for the CEA.
Brugge reports that national e-recycling is a bipartisan issue. Manufacturers, retailers, recyclers and environmental groups are working with a Congressional e-waste working group to develop national e-recycling legislation.