The first U.S. energy efficiency standards were adopted by the Energy Department in the 1980s and they have proven exceptionally effective in cutting consumption in the targeted appliances. For example, DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported last year that the average new refrigerator in 2010 used only 44 percent of the energy consumed by a comparable new unit in 1985. As a result, LBNL said: “Nationally, in 2010 refrigerator-freezers used one-third less total energy than in 1985 even though there were 70 million more units in use.” (“Energy and Economic Impacts of U.S. Federal Energy and Water Conservation Standards Adopted From 1987 Through 2012.” LBNL, April 2013)
That’s an impressive result, but despite these efficiency-related savings, electricity consumption in the United States has gone up over the past decade. DOE statistics indicate that average monthly electricity consumption nationwide in 2012 was 903 kilowatt-hours, up from 889 kwh in 2000. So what gives?
What gives is the explosion of electronic devices that have taken up residence in our homes during the past decade: increasingly large flat screen TVs, desktops, laptops, routers, printers, and gaming consoles, to name just a few. As important, more and more of these devices are networked-connected and, as a result, are essentially on all the time—even when they are not being used.
The International Energy Agency released a fascinating report earlier this month detailing the scope of the problem. The report, More Data, Less Energy, can be found here. The takeaway is eye-opening: Network-enabled devices in homes and offices consumed 616 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2013—the vast majority of which was used just to maintain the device’s connectivity, not to perform any useful work. This is an increase of a little less than 50 percent in only five years, and could be just the beginning. IEA projects that unless efficiency standards for these network-connected devices are adopted soon, demand could spike to 1,140 twh by 2025 (see chart below).
Just for reference, an efficient 500 megawatt coal plant can generate about 3 twh of electricity in a year. In other words, it could take roughly 380 500 MW coal plants worldwide just to meet the demand of these network-connected devices by 2025. And worst of all, most of that energy would simply be wasted.
For example, citing statistics from the Natural Resources Defense Council, IEA said that the 160 million or so set-top boxes in use in the United States in 2010 consumed about 18 twh of electricity, costing U.S. consumers about $2 billion—even though much of the electricity was consumed when no one was watching since the devices use the same amount of energy 24 hours a day/seven days a week just to maintain their network connectivity.
An equally stunning example is the ubiquitous microwave and the device’s accompanying digital clock. A pain to have to reset following a power outage (but that’s another story for another post), it turns out the clock is also, in many ways, an energy hog. While cooking food takes a lot more energy than running the clock, IEA says that because the typical microwave is only used about 1 percent of the time for this purpose, it actually takes far more electricity to run the clock over the appliance’s operating life.
Gaming consoles are also huge energy hogs, gobbling up 16 twh of electricity in the U.S. in 2010—1 percent of overall residential consumption. Globally, IEA added, total consumption could top 45 twh by 2015, with upward of 85 percent of that total being used simply to maintain a network connection, not for actual game playing.
And the problem is only going to get worse. IEA says that roughly 2.7 billion people worldwide were connected to the internet in 2013, a figure that is projected to rise to more than 5 billion by 2020. Perhaps more important, the number of wireless home networks is expected to top 800 million worldwide by 2016, up more than 40 percent from 2011—and all using routers and other devices that are always on, even when not being used. On a smaller scale, but just as telling, the agency said the average number of network-connected devices in homes with teenagers in the OECD is expected to climb from 10 currently to 16 in 2015.
Since this energy is wasted in a trickle, with individual households paying perhaps a dollar or two extra a month, there has been little call for more efficient standards. But there should be since this is energy that truly need not be used: IEA says that the best available technologies and operating standards could cut usage by up to 65 percent at little cost.
It’s time to act.