Energy hogs in your living room

What your plasma TV, digital video recorder and other gadgets are doing to your electricity bill. It's not pretty.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
6 min read
A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

The holidays are approaching, and consumer electronics are likely to be a bestseller among gift-givers again this year.

But as people plug in their shiny new digital cameras, big-screen TVs, laptops and portable music players, what some may not realize is the growing chunk of their electric bill these devices are greedily consuming.

Overall, consumer electronics account for 15 percent to 20 percent of household electricity use today, up from 5 percent in 1980, according to figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit organization. That makes high-tech toys the fastest-growing source of home electricity use, the NRDC said.

"We're bringing more and more of these products into our homes and using more and more energy to power them," EPA spokeswoman Denise Durrett said.

Predicted TV power consumption

TVs are the biggest energy beasts of the high-tech gadget world. Alone, they account for 4 percent of the nation's annual residential electricity consumption, NRDC said. That's roughly the same amount of energy used annually by all households in the state of New York, it added. Factor in peripherals--like DVD players, set-top boxes, game systems and TiVo machines--and TV-related energy consumption can shoot up to more than 10 percent of the average household's annual electric bill.

Plasma TVs in particular have become the home's equivalent of a gas-guzzling SUV, consuming two to three times more energy than other smaller types of TVs. Some models can suck up as much electricity each year as a refrigerator, the NRDC said.

With screen sizes growing and sales of power-intensive plasma and high-definition units on the rise, NRDC expects national energy use for TVs to increase by more than 50 percent by the end of the decade. The trend is also being fueled by the ever-growing number of TV sets in use across the country and by the fact that Americans are spending more time in front of them.

Among these factors, size is important. "This trend toward bigger TVs means we're going to eat more power," Chris Ambarian, an analyst at iSuppli, said.

Interestingly, liquid-crystal displays, which are generally more energy-efficient than cathode-ray tube displays when used in computer monitors, offer no advantage energy-wise when used in TVs, NRDC noted. "Once LCDs exceed the size of a typical computer display and get as large as 40 diagonal inches, the LCD technology has no consistent efficiency advantage," the group said in a report.

Energy-sapping adapters
TVs aren't the only energy-chugging gadgets in the home. Anything that comes with an external power source, such as an adapter or charger, can also bloat energy bills. With the proliferation of cell phones, laptops, handheld computers, digital cameras and digital music players, every person in the U.S. has an average of five external power adapters, the EPA said.

The problem is that most adapters are incredibly inefficient, with many current models utilizing only 30 to 60 percent of the electricity they process, according to the EPA. In addition, adapters will continue to consume a steady trickle of energy even when they're not in use--a problem that plagues many home electronics. "It's wasting electricity the whole time it's plugged in," Ambarian said.

Many consumer electronics products have the same characteristic. Even if you think they're off, TVs, desktop computers and almost any device with a microchip require some juice to keep their inner clocks ticking, maintain settings and help them power up quickly.

Cable and satellite set-top boxes, and digital video recorders such as TiVo are among the worst offenders in this regard, NRDC said. A digital video recorder can consume up to 350 kilowatt hours a year--or half as much energy as a refrigerator--said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at NRDC. "In general, if you feel heat, energy is being wasted," he said.

Correction: This story incorrectly named the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In addition to higher electricity bills, energy-wasting electronics have a direct impact on the environment. After all, the average home is responsible for twice as much greenhouse gas as the average car, according to the EPA. In the U.S., power plants are responsible for 63 percent of all sulfur dioxide emissions and nearly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, the agency said.

What you can do
Tips from experts on how to curb consumer electronics' appetite for kilowatts

Look for the Energy Star label
This shows that a product meets the EPA's energy-efficiency criteria. The agency rates dozens of kinds of consumer electronics, including TVs, DVD players, stereo systems and home office equipment.

Ditch the screensavers
Screensavers require continuous processing power and prevent computers from resting in energy-saving "sleep" mode. That can add $50 to $100 to an electricity bill each year, if a PC is left on, the NRDC estimates.

Monitor improvements mean images can't burn into screens, so there's no need to use screensavers any more, the group says.

Unplug power adapters while not in use
Electricity continues to be eaten up by power adapters and chargers even when they're not recharging your cell phone, digital camera or other gadget.

Write your member of Congress
Let legislators know that you'd like to buy more energy-efficient electronics and urge quick action by the EPA and the Department of Energy on new specs for TVs and other devices.

Sources: EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council and iSuppli

"There's no smoke coming out of your TV when you turn it on," Durrett said. "So you have to think in terms of how that energy is made and how it gets to your home."

Energy Star push
Through its voluntary Energy Star labeling program, the EPA is hoping to encourage high-tech manufacturers to improve the energy efficiency of high-tech devices. On the power adapter front, the agency introduced Energy Star specifications earlier this year and has been working with cell phone manufacturers to implement them.

Samsung will be the first to sell handsets with Energy Star-qualified power adapters, EPA's Durrett said. Consumers should to see them arrive within the next few months, the agency said.

If every power adapter were 90 percent efficient, which the EPA said is possible, consumers could collectively save more than 5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year. The energy savings would prevent more than 4 million tons of greenhouse gas emission, equivalent to the average emissions of 700,000 cars, the agency said.

The EPA has also updated its Energy Star specification for computer monitors to address energy consumption while the machines are on. The previous specification deals mainly with sleep and off modes. Monitors sporting the new Energy Star label should start appearing early next year.

The agency is also working on an Energy Star specification for TVs that deals with the power consumed when the machines are on. The current TV specification only takes into account the power used in off-mode, which represents just 10 percent of TV energy use, according to NRDC data.

But the TV on-mode specification won't be ready for at least another two years, Durrett said. One big hurdle is coming up with a measurement method that manufacturers can agree on. The U.S. Department of Energy hasn't updated its method in nearly 30 years, so right now, it only applies to black-and-while TVs.

The NRDC is pressing for quicker action. "The time to act is now, before the sales of big-screen TVs take off due to price reductions," NRDC's Horowitz said. "If progress is not made soon, we will be stuck with a generation of energy-hogging big-screen TVs in people's homes for the next 10 years or so."

The group estimates that reducing active-mode energy consumption in TVs by 25 percent could save the U.S. more than 10 billion kilowatt hours a year, enough energy to power the state of Delaware for a year.