The skinny on gadgets' growing energy appetite

Energy use from the menagerie of consumer electronics -- PCs, iPad, DVRs, etc. -- has ballooned, a result of our always-on lifestyle. Better efficiency and powering down can help.

A simple way to cut stand-by power in the kitchen or other easily accessible spot is this Belkin switch. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Here's something you can thank Steve Jobs for: a fatter electricity bill.

A dive into the data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) spells out what many of us intuitively know: the explosion in the number of computer gadgets and TVs has dramatically shifted the balance of household electricity over the years.

Even the rapid technology change of the Internet revolution can't compare to the always plugged-in lifestyle that's crept up on us through iPods, e-books, smartphones, DVRs, and the like. Electronics represented about 7.2 percent of household electricity use in 2001 and are estimated to have climbed to 10.5 percent in 2009, or about the same as is used by refrigerators and dishwashers. That 2009 figure only includes TVs, set-top boxes, PCs, and related equipment, so it doesn't represent all of consumer electronics, according to an EIA representative.

The forecast? More electronics, more power. The EIA expects that two categories -- PCs and related equipment and TVs and set-top boxes -- will be among the fastest growing categories of electricity consumers between now and 2035.

Consider how much digital technology has entered your own life. In the lifetime of someone more than 30 years old, the share of electricity use from appliances and electronics has nearly doubled to 31 percent of residential electricity, with the growth in electronics offsetting lower energy use from more efficient appliances.

Now consider this: that statistic is from 2005, before the release of the iPhone, the Kindle, mass-market tablets, ultrabooks, and the growing list of rechargeable digital devices many of us now own. Just in the last fiscal quarter, one analyst estimated Apple sold 31 million iPhones and 12.5 million iPads .

If you're a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer, the "plug load" when you were a kid was perhaps the TV, stereo (with turntable!), lights, and major appliances. With the PC revolution of the 1980s, computers started to creep into people's homes, although penetration wasn't significant until the late 1990s.

Then in the 2000s, we saw a rapid adoption of DVRs, more TVs per household, home Internet routers, and many rechargeable electronic devices. By 2009, nearly 58 million U.S. households had between one and three rechargeable electronic devices.

An updated report on residential energy use is expected this month from the EAI, but revised numbers will only go up to 2009, which is still before the days of power-hungry 4G smart phones, the iPad, and a growing list of rechargeable devices.

Don't overthink it
So electronics are a bulging portion of our energy budget, driven by the sheer number of devices. But there are some positive trends on energy and electronic gadgets.

In general, engineers are improving the efficiency of consumer electronics and computers. The average power consumption from LCD flat-screen TVs, for example, fell from about 250 watts on average from 2005 to 2007 to closer to 100 watts now , according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The stand-by power equipment to TVs has been cut dramatically in the past few years as well.

Although manufacturers often oppose efficiency mandates, they have set the bar for performance for some important products. The California Energy Commission, which adopted efficiency mandates for TVs and major appliances, such as refrigerators, credits its mandates for keeping per-capita electricity flat for the last 30 years and billions of dollars saved.

A study from Carnegie Mellon University this week pointed out another way to save lots of energy: automatically turn off idle equipment. It published an analysis that found that an auto power down mode for video game consoles, which could be added via a firmware update, is the most effective way to reduce energy.

Even more sophisticated technologies are being developed, too. Researchers and some entrepreneurs are working on home monitoring tools that itemize how electricity is used within a house, providing clues on how to run appliances more cost effectively.

But it's the devices which are on all the time that are the most surprising and insidious energy hogs. And its starts in your living room.

The average energy consumption from HD set-top boxes and HD DVRs, at 446 kilowatt-hours per year, is more than a refrigerator and more than twice that of a TV on for five hours a day or a desktop PC on for eight hours a day, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. It estimates set-top boxes and DVRs cost consumers $2 billion a year when they're not in use and collectively consume as much in a year as the state of Maryland.

Game consoles, too, have an outsized energy profile because they're often on for long periods. The authors of the Carnegie Mellon study estimate electricity consumption from consoles has ballooned 50 percent from 2007 to 2010 and now represents about 1 percent of all residential electricity.

It's tempting to think a cool product will effortlessly put electronics on an energy diet, perhaps the way Nest Labs made the most boring of consumer products -- programmable thermostats -- into a delightful consumer device.

Technology certainly will help, but behavior goes an awfully long way, too. Using power-saving settings and just turning off your gear, whether it's your Xbox or your laptop, is the easiest way to slim down the electronics portion of your power bill.

 

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