So you’re a thoughtful energy consumer—you turn the lights off when you leave a room, you turn your thermostat down so it doesn’t run when you’re not home and you have even purchased a few light emitting diodes (LEDs) to replace your ancient incandescent bulbs. Feeling pretty good about yourself? Well think again.
A shocking study released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that on average we may be wasting as much as 23 percent of the electricity we buy every year. The waste, NRDC said, can be traced to the ubiquitous electronic devices that dot every room in every house/apartment in the United States. These devices—an average house has 65 of them NRDC said—consume electricity around the clock—even if they are actually only being used for an hour or two a day.
Adding it all up, NRDC said, these inactive devices waste about 1,300 kilowatt-hours of electricity per house per year—about the output of 50 500 megawatt power plants nationwide. While wasted, the electricity still has to be paid for—and this costs consumers roughly $19 billion annually, or $165 per household. That’s a lot for nothing.
NRDC’s analysis (Home Idle Load, which can be found here) focused on northern California and the environmental group was careful to say that the results aren’t “statistically representative of the national condition,” but the reality is consumers nationwide buy the same or similar products—game controllers, PC monitors, printers, routers, and so on. In other words, the results almost certainly are reflective of national trends. In fact, NRDC added, the totals outside of California actually could be worse due to “additional climate-related idle load and to the lack of appliance efficiency standards such as those in place in California for products with rechargeable batteries.”
And the problem is likely to get even worse in the years ahead without action since an increasing number of products are morphing from mechanical to digital, with electronic displays and/or internet connectivity now being built into products such as washers, dryers and refrigerators, to name just a few. One of my first posts (click here) looked into this issue in depth, but it seems there is no end to the creativity of manufacturers. As NRDC noted, “conveniences like heated towel racks, toilet seats and bathroom floors are growing in popularity and many continue to draw significant amounts of power when no one is using them.”
For its study, NRDC analyzed smart meter data from 70,000 homes in northern California. To gather more detailed information, the group broke out a sample of 2,750 homes in the San Francisco area and looked into how home size, age and number of occupants affected idle load. Finally, the group also did an in-depth audit of 10 homes (including four that belonged to NRDC staffers) to track the exact devices responsible for idle load.
The results of the more detailed sampling were informative, showing that there is significant variation in idle load in houses of the same size, similar age and with the same number of occupants. “This suggests,” NRDC wrote, “that purchasing more efficient products or operating the same products in a more efficient manner, could yield significant energy savings in homes with higher than average idle loads.” At the same time, the huge number of energy consuming devices in the average home (see chart below) clearly shows that there is no magic bullet approach to reducing this waste—it is going to have to be done across the board, product by product, with education playing a crucial role.
The importance of consumer information cannot be overstated: In one of the 10 in-depth home audits NRDC conducted the group found that the homeowner had been leaving a 90 watt halogen light on 24 hours a day, seven days a week for years—not realizing that it was costing him about $90 a year, for nothing. Informed of this, NRDC wrote, “the occupant…switched off the light for the periods when he was sleeping or away from home.” It’s a small step, but that is what will be required to tackle the problem. The group didn’t say whether the homeowner was one of their staffers; if he was I imagine there now is a big black notation in his personnel file saying something like, ‘not a real environmentalist, promote with caution.’
Still, there is plenty of potential for reducing this electric waste. NRDC said that 25 percent of the 2,750 homes it studied in more depth already use less than 80 watts of idle load per thousand square feet of house size. At the other end of the spectrum, 25 percent of the homes consumed more than 160 watts of idle load/thousand square feet, while the remaining 50 percent consumed more than 115 watts.
If everyone met the 80 watts per thousand square foot level, NRDC said, the savings would be substantial—electricity consumption would be cut by approximately 64 billion kwh per year and homeowners would save an estimated $8 billion annually nationwide. That sounds like it’s worth making sure your cable boxes are on power strips that you can turn off when going to bed. If you don’t then instead of counting sheep to get to sleep you can count dollars as your electric meter clicks away.