By Troy Wolverton
RISMEDIA, Oct. 20, 2008-(MCT)-We all love our gadgets-and love having more and more of them-but technophilia has a downside: Running all those gadgets takes energy.
A lot of it.
As consumers have stocked their homes with big-screen TVs, computers, cell phones and increasing numbers of other consumer electronics and tech products in recent years, those products have been sucking up more and more power. Consumers not only have more gadgets but, in many cases, the new tech products use more power than comparable ones used in the past.
“We’re consuming more electricity per home because of all these additional devices,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, who works on clean energy issues for Environment California, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. “They use way more electricity than you think.”
For individual consumers, that means higher electric bills. For society as a whole, it means increased generation of greenhouse gases.
Fortunately, energy experts say, you don’t have to throw out your new LCD TV to curb your energy consumption. There are some easier, less painful steps you can take. And new technology either already on store shelves or coming online soon should help consumers cut their consumption even more, they say.
“With few exceptions energy efficiency is an afterthought with manufacturers,” said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “The good news is this is starting to change.”
A representative of the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry trade group, noted that the energy consumption of many individual products has come down considerably over time. The CEA, which has advocated voluntary rather than government-imposed efficiency standards, has created a website where consumers can search for energy-efficient tech products.
The amount of energy consumed by gadgets is rising rapidly at a time when consumption by other appliances, such as refrigerators and air-conditioning units, has fallen markedly. In 2001, the average U.S. household used about 778 kilowatt-hours per year-about 7% of total electricity use-to power tech gadgets, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That was up from about 633 kilowatt-hours per year-or 6% of total home electricity use-in 1997.
Part of the increase reflects the proliferation of devices. DVRs, MP3 players and wireless routers have gone from exotic to commonplace over the past 10 years. Cell phones have grown in popularity. And many consumers have gone from having one PC at home to two or three.
Along the way, consumers have frequently replaced older tech products with ones that are bigger and faster-and which often consume more power. TVs with liquid crystal displays, for instance, are typically more efficient than older ones with cathode ray tubes. But consumers often replace their older TVs with much bigger ones, which reduces any efficiency gains.
Many consumers might regard the energy used by these devices as a fair trade for the benefits they offer. But much of the energy is consumed when the devices aren’t being used. Power plugs that remain plugged in even when disconnected from a cell phone still suck down electricity.
Some devices use almost as much power when turned off as when they are on. When you turn off a cable set-top box or a DVR, you’re often just turning off the LED light, noted Michael Kanellos, a senior analyst with Greentech Media, a research firm.
“You’re saving almost no power,” he said.
With recent spikes in energy prices, growing concern about global warming and prodding from regulators and advocates, the electronics industry has increasingly focused on efficiency issues, analysts say. Many devices now use less power in standby mode than they did before, for instance.
“We’ve seen very significant improvements in the amount of power (computers) are drawing,” noted Steve Kleynhans, an analyst with Gartner, an industry research firm.
The growing use of portable devices _ cell phones and laptop computers most notably _ has also forced manufacturers to think more about energy efficiency, in order to extend battery life and reduce overheating.
“All gadgets that want to run off batteries have to sip power,” Klenhans said.
More improvements are on the way. Replacing the fluorescent backlights in LCD TVs and computer monitors with LEDs promises to make those products more efficient. New power strips already on store shelves will shut off power completely when they sense that the devices attached to them are not in active use.
But there’s much that consumers can do, too, including shutting off devices when they aren’t in use, adjusting settings on devices so they consume less power and shopping for gadgets with the government’s “Energy Star” rating, which identifies the most efficient products on the market in a particular category.
Mostly, though, it just takes awareness by consumers of how much energy their gadgets are using, experts say. And they have an incentive to do so: Conserving electricity saves money. Horowitz estimates that consumers can lower their power bills by 5% just by doing things like turning off their gadgets when they’re not using them.
“It’s a simple way that anybody can save money,” said Casey Harrell, a campaigner at Greenpeace.
What You Can Do
Measure your output: Electricity usage meters, such as P3 International’s Kill A Watt (about $18 online), can tell you how much energy is consumed by particular devices when they are in use, on standby or simply plugged in.
Dim your TV: New LCD computer monitors and flat-screen TVs are frequently set to maximum brightness. Turning down the brightness can save significant energy without a notable difference in picture.
Turn ’em off: Leaving gadgets like computers or routers on all the time can save time waiting for them to start up. But it also sucks energy-and burns money.
Unplug: Tech devices frequently use significant energy even when they are nominally turned off. So can power adapters, even when they’re not plugged into devices such as phones and laptops.
Use power strips: It can be a pain to go around unplugging everything. Using a power strip can save time, allowing you to shut off multiple devices with the flick of a switch.
Buy a smart strip: New power strips automatically turn off power to devices when they sense that the devices aren’t in active use.
Shop smart: When searching for new products, look for ones with the government’s “Energy Star” label. The program identifies the most energy-efficient products-generally the top 25% -in particular categories.
Consider energy costs: When thinking about buying new gadgets, think about how much energy they will use. That could mean buying more efficient devices, using more efficient devices for particular tasks-or even buying fewer gadgets overall.
Source: San Jose Mercury News research
Adding It Up
Different groups have come up with various estimates of how much energy is consumed by tech gadgets in consumers” homes. But the studies agree that the amount is significant and increasing.
11%: The proportion of home energy nationwide devoted to tech gadgets and consumer electronics devices in 2006
18%: The expected proportion of U.S. home energy use for such devices in 2015
Sources: California Energy Commission; Ecos Consulting; Consumer Electronics Association; TIAX; American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
© 2008, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.