Clarification appended.

The Department of Energy introduced a new award last week for the most energy-efficient televisions in an attempt to make a major cut in energy consumption in living rooms around the world.

The Global Efficiency Medal was created by the Super-efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment (SEAD) Initiative just ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), an annual industry event taking place this week in Las Vegas where high-tech companies present their new products and features.

"Televisions are a good place to start, in my mind, because they are a big part of [energy] demand," said Rick Duke, a deputy assistant secretary at DOE, noting that televisions use between 5 and 8 percent of the world's residential electricity. According to SEAD, this amounts to 168 terawatt-hours of electricity use annually, producing 27 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Partnering with 16 countries, SEAD hopes the award will make efficient televisions more visible to consumers and drive down global energy consumption. Manufacturers will be pitted against one another for up to 20 awards in three television size categories (small, medium and large) across four regions: Australia, the European Union, India and North America.

"There are really two objectives for the prize; the first is to help consumers who want to find the most efficient device to find that device. It's a complement to the Energy Star label," said Duke, referring to the labeling program created by DOE and U.S. EPA, now used around the world to highlight devices that use energy below a given threshold. In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission also introduced yellow labels for televisions that list how much energy they use and how much they cost to operate.

The second goal, according to Duke, is to "motivate manufacturers to push the envelope for super-efficient televisions." Electronics companies have already made efficiency strides as low-cost flat panel televisions replaced boxy cathode ray tube (CRT) devices. At the outset, liquid crystal displays (LCDs) used less power than CRTs, but plasma display panels (PDPs) became energy hogs when they were first introduced, consuming up to 400 watts for a 50-inch display.

Sifting energy hogs out of the new acronyms
In the past few years, both PDPs and LCDs have started to use less electricity. The California Energy Commission found that for 42-inch displays, an LCD consumes 203 watts, while a PDP uses 271 watts on average. Many LCDs upgraded their backlights, the largest power drain in those devices, from fluorescent lamps to light-emitting diodes (LEDs), allowing them to become much thinner and more efficient.

By 2014, SEAD expects LED LCDs to account for 75 percent of global television sales. Another technology, organic LEDs, is also rapidly gaining ground and uses even less energy while offering better colors, contrast and response times than LCDs.

However, while some buyers may like energy efficiency in, say, refrigerators, television viewers may not. "Clearly, in the appliance area, energy efficiency is a top consideration among many consumers. In consumer electronics [like televisions], it's a growing element of interest by consumers, but it's overshadowed by things like best picture and overall viewing experience," explained John Taylor, vice president of public affairs for LG Electronics USA.

Because of this, television manufacturers have to deliver better efficiency while still improving performance in other areas. Taylor said his company, currently second in the world in television sales and third in appliances, has been improving energy efficiency in its products for some time. In 2011, eight LG televisions received the Energy Star "Most Efficient" designation out of 28 awardees.

LG is using features like automatic brightness adjustments based on ambient light to curb power use in its televisions. Taylor also said LED backlights have improved the overall efficiency of the company's LCD flat-panel product line. At CES, the company presented a 55-inch television using organic LEDs, which attendees praised for its vivid colors, thin profile and narrow bezel.

Jennifer Amann at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy said that making televisions more efficient is important because as energy consumption is reduced in buildings and transportation, consumer electronics will become a larger fraction of overall power use.

In addition, home entertainment systems have expanded, along with their power consumption. Devices like digital video recorders, Blu-ray players and video game consoles increase home energy footprints even as television power use goes down. "In many homes, their consumer electronics just associated with a television can rival that of a new refrigerator. It's becoming an increasingly important part of what we're looking at," said Amann.

42 inches becomes the new 25
The size and overall number of televisions are increasing, as well. "We really need to get this right, because, while we have made a lot of energy savings, we are giving away some of those savings because televisions have gotten a lot bigger," said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. "Forty-two [inches] is the new 25."

These devices also consume power when no one is watching, upward of 25 watts, when in standby or idle modes that enable the television to start up quickly, according to SEAD.

In the United States, more than 114 million households have a television and 35.9 million have four or more sets, according to Nielsen Co. Hours spent watching television are on the rise as more content becomes available and accessible on demand with services like Netflix and TiVo.

Around the world, more than a quarter-billion televisions are sold annually, with some of the biggest increases seen in the developing world. "In developing countries like India, that big-screen television is often that family's first major appliance. They buy that even before they buy a refrigerator," Horowitz said. However, these countries often have poor power distribution systems and are the least likely to be able to handle the extra stress on the grid.

The question remains: Will people buy it? "You're going to have some consumers who are going to seek it out because it will be a priority for them," said Amann. "In some cases, it might be a tie-breaker."

"We've found that over the years, manufacturers found that there is a marketing advantage" for efficiency measures, she said. "Many of the retailers have goals for increasing sales of Energy Star labels."

Though some features, like reducing overall power consumption, have gained traction among customers, others, like power load distribution, are still searching for a market. "Our consumer research shows that it's still a little early for consumers to embrace the smart grid," said Taylor, referring to appliances that scale their energy use based on power pricing and availability.

Though he said it's too early to tell, Taylor expects that LG will have a strong showing in the Global Efficiency Medal contest. "Based on what I've seen from the new product line we've introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show, I'm pretty bullish about it," he said. The Collaborative Labeling and Appliance Standards Program will announce the winners in October, just ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Clarification: The 5-to-8-percent figure given by Duke of DOE referred to a reduction in global residential electricity consumption, not overall global electricity consumption as an earlier version stated.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500