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Public health alert: watching TV can lead to blackouts

TV makes you stupidThe cause of the blackouts that swept America during the recent heatwave seems obvious. Demand for electricity soars when roasting residents crank their air conditioners, stretching the grid beyond capacity. But at least in Los Angeles, residents can also blame their TVs.

Keep in mind that heatwaves aren’t entirely unpredictable events. Utilities know they’re going to get hit with a surge in demand at some point during the summer, and they try to plan accordingly. In Southern California, however, the Department of Public Works failed to factor in the recent growth in baseline energy usage, driven in part by all the shiny new gadgets we’re putting into our homes.

The problem, according to the LA Times, is the “the increased energy use of today’s larger, highly electronic homes — including the growing popularity of big-screen plasma TVs, which eat up about as much power as a large refrigerator and about a third the energy of a central air system.”

Most people don’t realize that their homes are actually a bigger source of greenhouse gas emissions than their cars. It takes a lot of energy to heat, cool, and power a house, and like our cars, Americans’ homes and appliances have been getting ever bigger.

So if you’re thinking of trading up to a plasma, our advice is: don’t. Put the money in a carbon-fiber bicycle instead. But if you’re intent on buying that hi-def set, at the very least keep it turned off when you’re not watching, rather than leaving it in standby.

(As an aside, many people, myself included, criticized the paradox of bicycling study on the grounds that our energy consumption profiles in the future might look very different than today. To those critics, myself included, it is worth noting that indeed our consumption patterns are changing — in the wrong direction.)

Update: the phenomenon isn’t limited to Southern California. On July 18, the nation as a whole set an all-time record for single-day electricity usage, and the exact same scenario is now playing out across the country as the heat wave spreads. Records are being broken in New York, the Midwest, and mid-Atlantic. According to the New York Times, “system operators surpassed not only previous records, but also the predictions they made in the spring for peak summer demand.”

Jim Smith, a spokesman for the New York Independent System Operator, which oversees the state’s power markets and distribution, said: “There are more people, more houses, those houses are bigger, there are more electronics in those houses, and they have bigger air-conditioning units. Computers, plasma televisions, video games, BlackBerrys, iPods — every new gadget you can think of has to be plugged in somewhere.”

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