Many unused televisions and video game consoles sit quietly in American homes with a red-eyed glare similar to that of the homicidal computer HAL in the science fiction film "2001: A Space Odyssey." Despite being turned off, their collective energy vampirism drains the equivalent of entire power plants in the United States.
That holds both the good and bad news for energy efficiency. New appliances and gadgets suck down less energy than their power-hungry predecessors, but U.S. households now host bigger swarms of TVs, computers and recharging smartphones. Still, energy experts say that continuing to boost energy efficiency standards should pay off more than trying to get Americans to tame their vampire gadgets.
"We've made progress, which is not to say we've won the war," said Steven Nadel, executive director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. "A lot of products now have lower standby energy usage than when we first started studying this issue."
Electronics on standby make up 5 percent to 10 percent of energy consumption in U.S. homes, according to the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. That translates into the energy equivalent of 43 to 86 power plants, if each plant produces 300 megawatts, based on Nadel's calculations.
"We're talking about power plants churning away just to keep the little red light on, so that when you hit the power button, you don't have to wait three seconds for the TV to turn on," said Matt Golden, president and founder of Recurve Inc.
Swarms of efficient gadgets
Overall energy use per American household has actually fallen by 31 percent over the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But the amount of electricity used by appliances and electronics in U.S. homes almost doubled during that same period — a factor that partly offset the overall energy efficiency gains.
The huge growth in energy used by gadgets comes despite federal energy efficiency standards being applied to every major household appliance. That points to the growing number of appliances and gadgets that simply didn't exist 30 years ago, as well as more households having several TVs or other devices.
"If you look at a plasma TV from six years ago and an LED TV coming out today, there's a huge difference between operating consumption and phantom (standby) loads," Golden told InnovationNewsDaily. "I think that's where we'll see real change — higher energy efficiency standards from equipment."
Federal energy efficiency regulations may prove necessary as more gadgets creep into homes. Whereas most U.S. households had no computers and just one TV in 1978, they had at least one computer and two televisions on average by 2009.
Better behaviors prove tricky
Some experts have focused on educating Americans about saving energy at home by unplugging devices and turning off power strips. But Golden is pessimistic, based on years of his firm's experience in helping retrofit homes with energy-saving makeovers.
Most Americans have no way of comparing how much energy their gadgets use, according to Golden. He recalled getting calls from homeowners in California who complained that "broken" energy meters were leading to expensive electricity bills. His company, Recurve, never found a broken meter.
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So-called "smart home" technologies have also begun creeping into a few households by promising to put energy awareness and management at the fingertips of homeowners. But adoption is slow and often expensive, according to a smart homes panel of experts at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in March.
The current cost of smart home technologies may not justify the energy savings for many homeowners, Golden said.
"It's hard to come up with really good use cases," Golden said. "You can control the household lights and do some fancy stuff, but at what cost?"
Smarter ways to save
For now, improved federal regulations on energy efficiency may continue to have the bigger impact. Most American homeowners and manufacturers of appliances or gadgets simply don't have good reasons to boost energy efficiency on their own, according to Golden.
"To expect the market to start cleaning this up and to start producing new appliances and technologies that pay attention to energy is unrealistic," Golden said.
The U.S. government's Energy Star label for energy efficiency already appears on many new appliances and gadgets. Nadel and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy have continued to push for minimum energy efficiency standards across all gadgets.
Take the case of video game consoles, which some gamers leave on all the time. Doing that with a first-generation console such as a Sony PlayStation 3 or Microsoft Xbox 360 consumes as much electricity as two new refrigerators each year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Now, newer models of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have managed to cut their energy usage by as much as half.
"We need to account for the fact that people will get new things and use even more of them," Nadel said. "We need to make the new gadgets as efficient as possible."
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