Europe sets rules for energy-efficient gadget power adapters

By 2020, they could save enough electricity to power the whole of Lithuania

Those external power supplies that deliver electricity to many of today's gadgets aren't just ugly, they're wasting energy, but, in Europe at least, that will change when new regulations come into force in April of next year, potentially cutting electricity bills.

Despite the recent focus on eliminating "phantom power," the electricity consumed by devices in standby mode, some devices continue to waste energy even when completely turned off.

That's because they use external power supplies to convert the high-voltage alternating current from the wall outlet into the low-voltage direct current they need.

Those external power supplies contain transformers, rectifiers, regulators and smoothing circuits that consume energy as long as they're plugged into the wall, even when they're not powering a useful load.

Those external power supplies are so inefficient that, if nothing is done, then by 2020 devices in the European Union will be wasting enough electricity to power the whole of Lithuania (population almost 3.5 million), according to the European Commission.

For gadgets sold after next April, strict rules will come into force limiting the energy that the power supplies can waste - and the regulations will tighten again in April 2011.

The rules set standards for the energy that the power supplies may waste in two situations: "no load," when the power supply is powered on but the device is turned off or not connected, and normal use.

With no load, the rules will initially limit the wasted power to 0.5 watts, and in 2011 that limit will be lowered to 0.3W for power supplies with a useful output of less than 51W.

That lower limit will apply to chargers for mobile phones and digital music players, for example.

While the no-load rules apply to all external power supplies, some of the less energy-hungry devices connected to them will be exempt from other regulations limiting standby power.

That step was taken to avoid posing too great a burden on manufacturers, according to a Commission official.

When the gadget is in use, the rules vary depending on how much power the gadget requires.

External power supplies rated at 51W or more must be at least 86 percent efficient (that is, they must deliver at least 86 percent of the power they draw to the device, wasting less than 14 percent).

Power supplies with an output of more than 6 volts must meet a slightly higher standard, 87 percent. This is about the same level of efficiency already demanded of energy-efficient internal power supplies found in servers in data centers.

Power supplies rated 1W must be 56 percent efficient (or 62 percent if the output is more than 6 volts). There's a sliding scale for those rated between 1W and 51W.

The new regulations, published Monday, have been four years in the making, and set requirements similar to recent U.S. Energy Star ratings, so devices compliant with one set of rules should meet the other.

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