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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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