Unplug Your TV

Due to the ongoing Fukushima disaster, Japan today has only 17 of its 54 nuclear reactors online (a little less than one-third). Nuke dependent Japan—30% of its electric power is nuclear—had to act quickly. In greater Tokyo, the target is a 15% reduction in electricity use during weekday hours of 9 am to 8 pm. Conservation targets mandated by the shutdowns have were met and exceeded, according to a report by Norimitsu Onishi in the New York Times.

Surprise, surprise (for everyone but your parents or grandparents): conservation works. Why is “do more with less” the slogan for everything but electricity?

US nuclear power plants generated 807 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 2010, close to 20% of the total. What if we took two-thirds of US nukes offline? We’d lose a little less than 14% of all electricity generated or about 532 billion kWh/year.

How might we survive that loss? One big step would be to unplug (not merely turn off) our televisions and their associated cable and satellite boxes.

A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that a high definition cable/satellite set-top box plus a high definition digital video recorder (DVR) together used 10% more juice than an efficient 21-cubic-foot refrigerator. This is without counting the television. An extraordinary finding. Refrigerators were the largest household electricity suck for decades.

The problem is hyped a bit by the NRDC study’s methodology. More and more folks with DVRs these days have them as built-in components of their set-top boxes (a recent development; just a few years ago DVRs were exclusively stand-alone), although percentage estimates differ.

NRDC goes on to complain about the lousy design of set-top boxes, which use two-thirds of their electricity when turned off. So much for EPA’s Energy Star standards. Naturally, there are superior European designs that reduce consumption by 95%.

NRDC would have televisual entertainment consume less electricity, an eminently sensible goal. But let’s push a little harder than NRDC (generally not very difficult). We can also try to be fairer with assumptions while at the same time engineering an eye-opening mash up.

A.C. Nielsen Company claims that 99% of American households have at least one television. The “average household” contains 2.24 TVs. Sixty-six percent of households have three or more televisions. Televisions are on about seven hours per day in the “average” US home.

The Census Bureau reckons there are about 312 million persons in the US. Given the Nielsen stats, and the popularity of sports bars, let’s assume everyone has their own television. But what kind of TV? Let’s go with the one that appears in a comparative graph in the NRDC report: an “Energy Star Version 4.1 42″ LCD TV model.”

It takes 181 kWh per year to power the 42-incher, according to NRDC. Let’s couple it to a combined HD-DVR set-top box that requires 275 kWh to keep on for a year. With the advent of “multi-room set-top box configurations,” each boob tube no longer requires it’s own set-top box. NRDC believes there are some 160 million set-top boxes currently in use in the US. Let’s do the math (this calculation omits video games consoles, and all the other devices we connect to our televisions):

(312,000,000 televisions) x (181 kWh/year) = 56,472,000,000 kWh/year
(160,000,000 HD–DVR set-top boxes) x (275 kWh/year) = 44,000,000,000 kWh/year

56,472,000,000 kWh/year + 44,000,000,000 kWh/year = 100,472,000,000 kWh/year.

Over one hundred billion kilowatt-hours per annum to keep that quality television programming streaming our way. That’s nearly one-fifth of the power that would need to be ‘replaced’ were two-thirds of US reactors offline (as in Japan).

How’s this not the ultimate ‘win-win scenario’? Save power, pollution, several billion dollars, and over two billion hours of wasted time per year while phasing out nuclear power? The other 80% of the missing power may be ‘replaced’ by other conservation measures: better bulbs, fewer lights on, higher air conditioner settings, lower electric heater settings, better electric motors, closed loops, improved appliance standards, etc. Just some tried-and-true steps; hardly “freezing in the dark.”

NRDC accepted US television addiction without further commentary: “U.S. television viewers prefer to watch what they want, when they want, where they want.”

We have anti-tobacco addiction, anti-drug addiction, anti-alcohol abuse programs and advertising. Why not an anti-television addiction campaign? There could be ads on buses, billboards, radio, in schools. DARE presenters would be joined by UPYTV (Unplug Your TV) educators in classrooms. Twelve Step programs would spring up in church basements. “One Weird Trick to Quit Your TV” ads would sprout on websites. Big Pharma could synthesize new compounds to ease the stress of unplugging.

Communities would rapidly improve with all the time available for citizen activism. Independent bookstores would flourish. Families would play games and do puzzles together again. Hobby stores would do a brisk business. People would again make their own music, and tell their own stories. There’d be time for physical exercise, and for outdoor pursuits. We’d be altogether healthier, smarter, and happier.

The ‘kill your TV’ groups ought to get together with the groups pushing energy conservation; they might be joined by those civic organizations bemoaning the decline of family values. Anti-violence groups could campaign with anti-nuclear groups. New, vibrant social movement coalitions would arise.

How better to get back at Rupert Murdoch? A frontal attack on the ‘American Way of Life’? It’s sure to be seen as such by Fox News. But who would know, and who would care? We’d have unplugged our TVs.

Steve Breyman’s most recent book is Why Movements Matter: the West German Peace Movement and US Arms Control Policy. He unplugged his TV and cable box several years ago. He has worked on energy conservation and other institutional greening campaigns for twenty years. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu