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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  1. Evan - August 2, 2006

    What is the difference in energy consumption for LCD tvs vs Plasma? I’ve always heard that LCD uses less energy, at least less energy than the old CRT standard. A quick browse of the Apple website (for their LCD monitors) reveals that the 23-inch uses 90W and the 30-inch uses 150W. Looking for energy consumption of Plasma TVs, neither Pioneer or Samsung make this information readily available. Anybody know?

  2. Kevin - August 2, 2006

    Found this comparison between CRT, rear- and front-projection LCD, and plasmas on CNET:
    http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-6475_7-6400401-1.html

  3. Chickardito - August 2, 2006

    This is a little more accurate: showing generally what
    eats what electricity wise. Plasma looks pretty hungry!
    http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-6475_7-6400401-3.html?tag=txt

  4. Daniel Barker - August 2, 2006

    In order to take saving energy seriously, we need to look at the big picture. The leading cause of more demand for power is, more people.
    The answer is family planning. I have no children, and plan on having one and adopting.
    Having a small family lessens the impact our energy consumption has on the grid.
    Also, I am working on making my own power. I have some solar panels, and I want to use them to charge deep-cycle batteries, which I would use to charge my recycle batteries. I can use reflecters and mirrors to bounce more light on the solar panels, giving me more power.

  5. Mike - August 3, 2006

    Daniel, I agree. I think a lot of environmentalists miss the point about family planning. Any serious book about the saving the planet from global warming should open with a chapter on family planning. The empowerment of women (anywhere in the world) leads to direct reductions in the birth rate, once women are given access to birth control and most importantly, reproductive education.

    Making your own electricty is a noble idea. Although not as fun, energy efficiency is much cheaper than generating your own electricity. Before you go nuts with the batteries and PVs, make sure you have compact fluorescent lighting installed in all your lighting fixtures. Sealing up the leaks in your windows and doors can save a lot of energy as well. I’m sure that I’m preaching to the choir already though.

  6. Anonymous - August 4, 2006

    Plasma screens are notoriously power-hungry. That was a major factor in my decision to avoid them. Instead, I bought an Epson LCD home-theater projector, with a 16:9 aspect ration and 1200×720 resolution. Although it consumes about 270W, it will produce a 100″ screen (or more), which is much bigger than any plasma available today. It only weighs 10 lbs, so it’s portable, and it averages out to 0.048W/sq.in., much better than any of the other solutions mentioned in the above link. Couple this with the fact that we only watch movies on it, and you have a true power savings. Do we really need TV in our lives anyway?

  7. Claire - August 5, 2006

    I think one of the issues that has been ignored in the area of regulating electronic equipment how it seems that most modern gadgets we have have are not actually “off” when we turn them off. They’re all still using electricity. Why do I need a clock on everything? Why do I need “instant on” for my television and stereo remote when I would be happy pushing a switch and waiting 15 seconds? I should have the “energy saving” option switch…every piece of electronic equipment should come with an on-off switch that actually turns the thing off–unplugging things every time is bad for the cord and bad for the outlet. How many gadgets are silently sipping electricity 24/7 when we’re not even using them?

  8. Eyal Morag - August 6, 2006

    In hot deys the energy use can be more then double of the TV because airconditon need to take the extra energy out.