Amusing ourselves to death

Gadgets, those little energy vampires that remain almost constantly plugged in, are sucking our energy system dry:

> Worldwide, consumer electronics now represent 15 percent of household power demand, and that is expected to triple over the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency, making it more difficult to tackle the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.

> To satisfy the demand from gadgets will require building the equivalent of 560 coal-fired power plants, or 230 nuclear plants, according to the agency.

The problem is three-fold. First, the sheer number of gadgets is rapidly expanding. In 1980, American households had an average of three pieces of consumer electronics. Today, that figure is closer to 25. The proliferation of iPods, gaming consoles, cell phones, DVRs, laptops, etc. have made up the difference.

Second, many of these gadgets are in an always-on state that draws at least a trickle of electricity. Cell phones need to listen for incoming calls. Televisions go into a standby mode rather than fully power down, so that they can turn on more quickly.

Third, our electronics are just getting piggier. Especially those flat-screen TVs, some of which draw more power than a refrigerator.

The economics of energy efficiency are a classic information problem. Even though more efficient products would save consumers money in the long run, most people are unaware of how much power individual appliances use, and few consider these downstream costs at the time of purchase.

Efficiency standards provide an obvious solution to the problem:

> In 1990, refrigerator efficiency standards went into effect in the United States. Today, new refrigerators are fancier than ever, but their power consumption has been slashed by about 45 percent since the standards took effect. Likewise, thanks in part to standards, the average power consumption of a new washer is nearly 70 percent lower than a new unit in 1990.

California is about to impose similar standards on televisions.

> The proposed requirements, which still require final approval, would apply to new televisions for sale starting in 2011. By 2013 — when the standards tighten further — total energy consumption would be reduced by an average of 49 percent…Televisions and their appendages — DVRs, DVD players and cable or satellite boxes — now use about 10 percent of the electricity in homes.

Efficiency standards need to be applied more widely if the U.S. is to achieve needed cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Broader legislation, however, is fiercely opposed by industry groups, who claim that such requirements will stifle innovation. Experience has generally shown the opposite to be true: efficiency mandates typically unleash the creativity of engineers and product designers, who can easily create great products that use a fraction of their former power — if they’re required to do so.

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  1. michael - September 23, 2009

    I somehow skipped right over these…yikes!

  2. Sean Y - September 23, 2009

    I’m thinking of getting a few of the power strip/surge protector units for the tv/dvr area and our cell phone/gps/ipod charging – the tv only gets used during the morning and around dinner, but the times we’re at work or asleep, everything could be off (there are timers that have multiple settings, too). The cell phones only take an hour or two to charge, yet I usually charge every other night so it’s on for 8-9 hours 3-4 times a week.
    Since they’re only $20-30, I imagine I could possibly recover that expense in a pretty short amount of time.

  3. James - September 23, 2009

    What I hate — my comcast dvr. I love that it records things for me, and often its set to record while i’m away, so I *can’t* power it fully off. While standing by — it really never does so, its just on — it uses 60 watts?!? (as measured by a kill-a-watt tool) Thats like leaving a lightbulb on *all* the time. Its terrible.

  4. Sean Y - September 23, 2009

    There is the SmartStrip option
    Though I’ve read reviews and I guess the thing that’s keeping me from getting it is that I’m not sure if the “sensing” would disable my cell phone charger when it’s done, or whether the DVR itself would initialise the power cycle… In that sense I’d rather have a timer unit. The timer units have always-on outlets as well, but 60W seems like a lot for a “standby” setting. My DirecTV unit does turn itself off when it’s not recording.
    Does anyone have experience with this that could comment?

  5. Don - September 23, 2009

    I _just_ bought a new 46″ LCD TV, replacing my 13 year old 32″ CRT TV. The new one, while being almost twice as much screen area, uses roughly 30% more power while it’s on (which it usually isn’t).
    But when it is off, the new TV only uses 0.16 Watts. Since for me it is off 90% of the time, it’s possible I will come out ahead on energy, although that is debatable.
    I did purchase an Energy Star model, and their ratings consider both the powered-on and standby usage. Also, I was able to look up the actual tested energy usage numbers on the EnergyStar website: I encourage everyone buying an appliance to do so.
    Upshot: efficiency standards good! Energy Star government program: good, and getting better!
    And yes, I waited until my old TV was dead, and yes, it’s being recycled :)

  6. Paul - September 28, 2009

    I’ve got a Directv TiVo DVR R10, and it uses 28 watts when on and 27 watts in “standby”. Not too bad. I replaced the hard drive with a low speed 5400 RPM Maxtor drive, and that probably contributes to the lower power usage.
    The DVR is still really on when in standby — it will still record and it keeps the hard disk spinning. It uses slightly less electricity in standby because it turns off the video decoder.

  7. Kate - September 30, 2009

    Let’s also consider the option of reducing our addiction to these electronic gadgets that provide us with simple “amusement” and go beyond making them more energy efficient. Consider a lifestyle with fewer gadgets and more physical activity, time with family, interaction with your neighbors and your community.
    These gadgets don’t only use energy and take away from some very important relationships, they also take a lot of energy and resources to produce and move very quickly into our landfills due to their very short lifespan.