Once again, why Europe is smarter

Results from a new Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study (pdf) on TV cable boxes revealed what we long suspected: Americans are a bunch of lazy couch potatoes. We kid, we kid.

The study, funded by the EPA and conducted by the NRDC and Ecos, examined the energy consumption of set-top boxes. The results were “startling” though probably not new to regular TerraPass readers (remember our three-part mini series? here, here, and here). But perhaps this new set of data will help catch some much-needed attention from policy makers .

A quick summary of what the study discovered:


There are approximately 160 million set-top boxes installed in US homes (or another way to think about it is that there are 1.6 boxes per every household – yeesh, explains the 11 million Glee viewers?)

– DVRs, which continue to rise in popularity, consume 40% more electricity than the basic cable box.

– Total energy consumption of set-top boxes in 2010 was 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is equivalent to the output of nine average (500 MW) coal-fired power plants (compare this to six power plants in 2007). That’s enough electricity to power the state of Maryland and results in 16 million mT of CO2e annually.

– Total cost of this energy to households in 2010: a whopping $3 billion.

But the worst part is that most (two-thirds) of this could (and should) be avoided, without any change in our TV-watching habits:

>Today’s set-top boxes operate at near full power even when the consumer is neither watching nor recording a show. As a nation, we spend $2 billion each year to power these boxes when they are not being actively used… Innovation to reduce power consumption when not in active use — such as has occurred with mobile phones, which also work on a subscriber basis and require secure connections — is sorely needed in set-top boxes.

Why don’t we have better options?

Well, for starters, it’s just not obvious to most consumers that this is a problem. We all love free things, and when the cable company offers you up to four boxes (for no additional cost), it might be tempting to say why not? Besides, it’s deceptive that there are “on/off” buttons; when you hit the “off” button, you expect that these recording devices will go into “sleep” mode, but actually, that’s usually not the case.

In a recent NYT article covering this issue, Noah Horowitz, Senior Scientist at the NRDC, says: “If you hit the on/off button it only dims the clock, it doesn’t significantly reduce power use.”

The article also points to the inefficiency of product design. American manufactures frankly don’t seem to care about reducing energy consumption because a) the consumers aren’t asking for better and b) no one (aka the EPA) is forcing them to be make more efficient designs. It seems that cable companies are more worried that TV/cable users will be annoyed by the time it takes to — heaven forbid — reboot or restart the system.

It’s not all hopeless. Ann Bailey, Director of Energy Star product labeling, says the EPA has plans to tighten standards in 2013 (that sounds far away). And the technology — and thus, the opportunity for some savvy cable provider to step in — certainly exists. Some European systems can reboot in as quick as 1-2 minutes (oh, thank heavens!) and will automatically go into “deep sleep” mode, drawing as low as 1 watt. But for the time being and at least for a while longer, consumers will have to resort to coming up with their own creative ways for cutting the energy drain.

I, for one, now see even more reason to get rid of my cable box all together. Hulu party anyone?

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  1. Karen Chalfen - July 14, 2011

    So why not create an online petition drive to cable companies, urging them to at least source production of European-style set-top boxes and offer them as a green alternative to their subscribers? Those of us who care would probably respond quickly and the company that won that race could use the fact that they provide such alternatives in their advertising–as long as they didn’t charge us more to consume less!

  2. Craig - July 14, 2011

    I have my cable boxes, TV and other related components plugged into power strips. When not using the devices, I flip the power strip switch off and everything stops draining power. True, it does take a couple of minutes for the cable boxes to reboot when I turn it on. Oh well.

  3. Wooden Monkey - July 14, 2011

    I would pay more for a DVR that uses less power. Currently we’ve disabled the clock on everything we can (including the microwave) which does decrease power consumption (a very very small amount, but 24/7) and got a chip from our cable company to put in our Tivo, so we only have one box to power, not two.

  4. Ryan J - July 14, 2011

    I use windows media center as my DVR with a Ceton CableCARD tuner card. I set it to sleep most of the time and it only gets up to record or watch TV (locally or via an extender). It goes back to sleep when it’s done. It also gets up in the middle of the night to do windows updates. This is what all set top boxes should be doing.

  5. Sean Y - July 14, 2011

    The problem with the power strip idea is that if you use the DVR function (I pretty much DVR everything I watch these days), the recorder would be completely unpowered during those periods.
    The DVR needs its own internal clock that’s programmed and separate from the unit to turn the unit on/off when it needs to record.

  6. pgnbri - July 14, 2011

    The point Sean Y makes about DVR’s is pretty much the entire reason I haven’t done the power strip option. I just don’t know how to get around this problem??

  7. M Lynn - July 14, 2011

    Another option: lose the television! I haven’t had it for 10 years now, and I still find plenty to do with my time!

  8. Johnmichael Monteith - July 14, 2011

    This is a paper or plastic discussion: Why in 2011 we are still having conversations about converting cable signals and storing shows locally is beyond me. The technology exists today with streaming video to replace the concern of turning off a local box entirely. I recognize, especially in light of the Netflix controversy, that very few are willing to cut the cable box when their favorite shows may not be there yet, but that is the direction technology is moving and will ultimately end this.

  9. Ryan J - July 14, 2011

    Someone needs to do a study on the greenness of streaming vs traditional delivery methods. But this is my take on it:
    Streaming – power is required for servers and other infrastructure such as routers, HVAC and redundant/backup power. Each user needs his/her own separate stream. Probably worse in terms of energy consumption and CO2 emissions. I’ve been inside of enough data centers to know that power considerations are not to be taken lightly.
    Traditional cable – Headend doesn’t require servers and separate streams for everyone. One to many architecture is actually quite efficient. There is power consumption in outside plant equipment (amps, nodes etc) and receiving and distribution equipment (satellite receivers, fiber links, terrestrial towers etc). Some of the same stuff is required such as HVAC and redundant power.
    Satellite – Same requirement as cable except for outside plant equipment. Satellites are green (solar powered).
    So I’m not so sure if by ditching traditional cable if we’re reducing our Carbon footprint. In fact it may even make things worse.

  10. Benjamin Ghiglione - July 15, 2011

    I contacted my cable company and was able to get a low power cable box. They called it a low profile cable box, because the physical size is smaller. I did a comparison and the standard box and the low profile box did the same features, except the low profile cable box used much less power. Hope this helps someone out there.

  11. Johnmichael Monteith - July 15, 2011

    @Ryan J:
    I do not dismiss the power use of massive server farms since Netflix is hardly a drop in the power use bucket. I also agree that an official study would be great, but purely from an educated guess perspective:
    A streaming server farm is shared use, so rather than 90% of all devices (cable boxes / DVR’s) being in idle status they can manage the servers to have only 10% in idle status. When you are in charge of such a massive electric bill you do not leave 100% of the servers operating at all times, you shut them down during off-peak hours and leave a buffer for when use ramps up. As a result I would think the power use would be dramatically less.
    That said, the advantages of streaming (instant access to whatever you want to watch – theoretically) might promote more use which may negate some of that power savings. Still – in theory, it should cut power use by more than half. In theory.

  12. Ryan J - July 15, 2011

    Johnmichael,
    Very few companies shut down servers when not in use, certainly not any company that serves content over the public internet (and certainly not Netflix, as I will explain below). In fact most companies have spare servers online and idling for redundancy. There may be some that do shut stuff down, but it is not a widespread practice. What companies may do is use virtualization and cloud services (VMWare, Amazon EC2 etc) and spin up and spin down instances as necessary to match demand.
    Netflix doesn’t have all or even most of its streaming servers in house. It uses content delivery services such as Akamai and Level 3. These guys have servers that are on all the time. Their server farms are massively distributed, with some servers living in your ISP (usually with Akamai, Level 3 doesn’t do this, IIRC). Several companies have taken efforts to green their operations but it still does not match the efficiency of one to many distribution like traditional cable. Furthermore, server capacity usage today stands at only 10-20%, unless you virtualize. So a lot is being wasted.
    The settop box power consumption problem can be easily cured, as I’ve done in my setup. Microsoft and others have already developed the technology for boxes to go into sleep mode when not in use, wake up to record or watch TV. True multiroom DVR should just have one master DVR and several extender slave units. These extender slave units will be in sleep mode or off consuming 1 watt or less. They will send a Wake on LAN signal to the master DVR and wake it up when it’s time to watch TV.

  13. Green Evangel - July 15, 2011

    Low tech solution:
    plug the plower strip into a timer; I suggest a programmable timer ($30) in lieu of the “pin” types ($6) which you can program differently for each day, several times a day.

  14. Johnmichael Monteith - July 16, 2011

    Even if companies love to burn cash and keep severs running during non peak hours the energy savings from combining resources alone would be substantial. Keep in mind that a significant percentage running a local DVR box are using streaming services, too, so they are doubling up that energy use. Regardless, the possible energy savings (and convenience) by keeping data centrally stored is the direction the market needs to go.

  15. Ryan Jairam - July 16, 2011

    The point was that traditional cable has always required less infrastructure and is more energy efficient than streaming, no matter how much you share infrastructure because you’re not sending an individual stream per person, you’re broadcasting to everyone.
    Furthermore, internet access is supplied primarily by the cable companies. Their infrastructure will be used to deliver the content anyway. You don’t need to throw away the baby with the bath water. Traditional cable is by far the most efficient method to deliver video programming to a wide audience. Make DVR cable boxes sleep when not in use and problem solved.

  16. Johnmichael Monteith - July 16, 2011

    Would love to see your source that traditional cable (including cable box / DVR) is more energy efficient than streaming a show. I believe it is heavily the opposite of that but would love to see stats otherwise.

  17. D. Patel - July 20, 2011

    You can buy power strips that have different outlets: always on, master, and energy saver (that turn off when the master does). I bought two at Lowe’s and use them for the television, etc. and the computer, etc. The manufacturer is Power Zone.

  18. ~jw - July 23, 2011

    Exactly!
    We went to Basic Cable (with no set-top box) and, like Craig, the entire Entertainment Center is on a power strip, so it is completely “off” the 22 hours a day we’re not using it.

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