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.
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.
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.