Why the Biggest Energy Suck in Your House May Have to do With Your TV

Note to TV-loving couch potatoes: That little box sitting atop your television set that transforms a signal into your favorite show is likely the largest single source of electrical waste in your entire household. These so-called set-top boxes are bigger electrical suckers than new refrigerators. Who knew such a small box could be such a huge power drain?

In the United States alone there are over 160 million set-top boxes perched inside entertainment centers and on television sets. That’s one for every two people in the country or 80 percent of U.S. households. The problem is largely due to the fact that modern set-top boxes operate at near full power even when nobody is even watching or recording a program. A new study reports that consumers in this country alone spend over $2 billion in electricity per year to run these little machines.

“The average new cable high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) consumes more than half the energy of an average new refrigerator and more than an average new flat-panel television,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Ecos in a new report called Better Viewing, Lower Energy Bills, and Less Pollution. “Even more troubling, when not displaying or recording video content, U.S. boxes draw nearly as much power as they do when in use.”

To put it in perspective, U.S. set-top boxes require as much energy to operate as the annual electricity consumption of all the households in the state of Maryland. That’s 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from boxes owned and installed by service providers like Comcast, Time Warner, DISH Network, Verizon, DirecTV and the like.

High-def satellite and cable boxes are the biggest culprits, with streaming devices using far less energy, a 40 watt difference while in use. Critics point to the design and function of these set-top units, which are in a perpetual state of being powered whether your TV is on or not. Energy use derives from the way the hardware in these units function, how the software is designed and how the mammoth operating services that feed them work.

Of course, set-top units are only one of many electrical gadgets that many rely on in our daily lives. The good news is that energy efficiency can fix the issue; indeed such techniques worked in the past to dramatically reduce energy consumption in American households. As Ted Nace points out in his book Climate Hope, per capita electricity usage in California was dramatically lowered compared to the rest of the U.S. as a result of state-mandated efficiency improvements of the 1970s.

Up until the early 1970s California’s electricity consumption patterns were similar to those of the rest of the country, but in 1973 something happened. California’s electricity usage flat-lined and then began to dip instead of rise like most other states. It was dubbed the Rosenfeld Effect after Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Art Rosenfeld, who was largely responsible for many of the efficiency innovations of the decade.

The OPEC embargo of 1973 prompted Rosenfeld, who was a leading physicist behind the Manhattan Project, to bring together a host of experts on energy fields for a four-week meeting of the minds at Princeton University. During their brainstorming session, Rosenfeld was surprised to realize that two-thirds of the power used in the U.S. per year came from buildings alone.

“We realized we had found one of the world’s largest oil and gas fields. The energy was buried, in effect, in the buildings of our cities, the vehicles on our roads, and the machines in our factories,” Rosenfeld reflected years later. “A few of us began to suspect that the knowledge we gained during that month would change our lives.”

Indeed, it didn’t just change Rosenfeld’s life, who returned to Berkeley with a bevy of new of ideas and innovations; it changed energy consumption levels for the entire state of California. Rosenfeld developed the basic electronic ballasts that make up compact fluorescent lamps and smart glass that blocks heat in buildings. Rosenfeld didn’t stop there. He took his ideas to the policy realm in California’s capital of Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown at the time was enthralled with Rosenfeld’s ideas and prompted him to develop and implement energy conservation structures, such as time-of-day pricing, which shifted energy use to the evenings and smart meters that benefited conservation-oriented consumers.

“Each such innovation may seem trivial until you consider the size of the markets involved. There are about a hundred million refrigerators in the United States–maybe more. In the early 1970s refrigerators were lightweight and noisy. Rosenfeld and crew upped the efficiency of refrigerator motors from 30 percent to 90 percent and added insulation,” writes Ted Nace in Climate Hope. “The result was a machine that used a quarter of the electricity that it previously required and saved its owner $200 or more per year. Due to refrigerator improvements alone, a hundred large coal plants that would have been required were no longer needed.”

If such a revolution in energy use was possible in the 1970s, it is surely possible today, conservationists say. But the companies that manufacture products like set-top boxes are not going to do it on their own.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘lazy,'” Alan Meier, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, recently told the New York Times, “but [industry has] had different priorities, and saving energy is not one of them.”

NRDC claims that better designed set-top boxes would drastically reduce wasted energy, much like Rosenfeld’s smart glass did back in the 1970s. One opportunity, the organization notes, is simply to have these set-up boxes automatically power down to lower levels while not in use.

Lower energy use for set-top boxes isn’t out of reach. In Europe, Sky Broadcasting is already offering customers a simple energy efficient set-top box. The company’s HD-DVR uses 23 watts when in use and 13 when it is in the deep sleep mode. In order to continue to receive information, the boxes wake up for a brief moment every 30 minutes to retrieve information on new programs and recording requests by users. If there is no activity to record the box will go back to sleep.

Sky Broadcasting isn’t necessarily being innovative; it is just practicing smart business. Unlike most of its competitors, Sky can boast of energy savings potential to customers and its “best-in-class” power management.

Will U.S. companies follow Sky’s lead? Not until consumers start pressuring their program providers for better, more efficient set-top devices, say experts. Some manufacturers, such as Cisco Systems, Samsung and Motorola have reported they are not feeling the heat, even though their set-top boxes, depending on the number in a given household, can increase from a few dollars to over $10 a month.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star voluntary rating system for set-top boxes is to be made more stringent by 2013. However, some still believe the government must do more than label the devices, it must actually require them to be more efficient, much like California did under Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s.

“Energy activists must work to influence public policy and to educate consumers,” says Ned Ford of the Sierra Club. “Consumers can’t buy energy-efficient appliances if stores don’t stock them, but stores won’t stock them if they think people will balk at higher up-front costs for greater efficiency. It’s up to the federal government to intervene and require a minimum level of efficiency for all consumer products from appliances to cars.”

This article first appeared on Alternet.org.

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