FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Your TV is Killing the Planet

Note to TV-loving couch potatoes: That little box sitting atop your television set that transforms a signal into your favorite show is likely the largest single source of electrical waste in your entire household. These so-called set-top boxes are bigger electrical suckers than new computers and televisions combined. Who knew such a small box could be such a huge power drain?

In the United States alone there are over 160 million set-top boxes perched inside entertainment centers and on television sets. That’s one for every two people in the country or 80 percent of U.S. households. The problem is largely due to the fact that modern set-top boxes operate at near full power even when nobody is even watching or recording a program. A new study reports that consumers in this country alone spend over $2 billion in electricity per year to run these little machines.

“The average new cable high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) consumes more than half the energy of an average new refrigerator and more than an average new flat-panel television,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Ecos in a new report called Better Viewing, Lower Energy Bills, and Less Pollution. “Even more troubling, when not displaying or recording video content, U.S. boxes draw nearly as much power as they do when in use.”

To put it in perspective, U.S. set-top boxes require as much energy to operate as the annual electricity consumption of all the households in the state of Maryland. That’s 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from boxes owned and installed by service providers like Comcast, Time Warner, DISH Network, Verizon, DirecTV and the like.

High-def satellite and cable boxes are the biggest culprits, with streaming devices using far less energy, a 40 watt difference while in use. Critics point to the design and function of these set-top units, which are in a perpetual state of being powered whether your TV is on or not. Energy use derives from the way the hardware in these units function, how the software is designed and how the mammoth operating services that feed them work.

Of course, set-top units are only one of many electrical gadgets that many rely on in our daily lives. The good news is that energy efficiency can fix the issue; indeed such techniques worked in the past to dramatically reduce energy consumption in American households. As Ted Nace points out in his book Climate Hope, per capita electricity usage in California was dramatically lowered compared to the rest of the U.S. as a result of state-mandated efficiency improvements of the 1970s.

Up until the early 1970s California’s electricity consumption patterns were similar to those of the rest of the country, but in 1973 something happened. California’s electricity usage flat-lined and then began to dip instead of rise like most other states. It was dubbed the Rosenfeld Effect after Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Art Rosenfeld, who was largely responsible for many of the efficiency innovations of the decade.

The OPEC embargo of 1973 prompted Rosenfeld, who was a leading physicist behind the Manhattan Project, to bring together a host of experts on energy fields for a four-week meeting of the minds at Princeton University. During their brainstorming session, Rosenfeld was surprised to realize that two-thirds of the power used in the U.S. per year came from buildings alone.

“We realized we had found one of the world’s largest oil and gas fields. The energy was buried, in effect, in the buildings of our cities, the vehicles on our roads, and the machines in our factories,” Rosenfeld reflected years later. “A few of us began to suspect that the knowledge we gained during that month would change our lives.”

Indeed, it didn’t just change Rosenfeld’s life, who returned to Berkeley with a bevy of new of ideas and innovations; it changed energy consumption levels for the entire state of California. Rosenfeld developed the basic electronic ballasts that make up compact fluorescent lamps and smart glass that blocks heat in buildings. Rosenfeld didn’t stop there. He took his ideas to the policy realm in California’s capital of Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown at the time was enthralled with Rosenfeld’s ideas and prompted him to develop and implement energy conservation structures, such as time-of-day pricing, which shifted energy use to the evenings and smart meters that benefited conservation-oriented consumers.

“Each such innovation may seem trivial until you consider the size of the markets involved. There are about a hundred million refrigerators in the United States–maybe more. In the early 1970s refrigerators were lightweight and noisy. Rosenfeld and crew upped the efficiency of refrigerator motors from 30 percent to 90 percent and added insulation,” writes Ted Nace in Climate Hope. “The result was a machine that used a quarter of the electricity that it previously required and saved its owner $200 or more per year. Due to refrigerator improvements alone, a hundred large coal plants that would have been required were no longer needed.”

If such a revolution in energy use was possible in the 1970s, it is surely possible today, conservationists say. But the companies that manufacture products like set-top boxes are not going to do it on their own.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘lazy,’” Alan Meier, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, recently told the New York Times, “but [industry has] had different priorities, and saving energy is not one of them.”

NRDC claims that better designed set-top boxes would drastically reduce wasted energy, much like Rosenfeld’s smart glass did back in the 1970s. One opportunity, the organization notes, is simply to have these set-up boxes automatically power down to lower levels while not in use.

Lower energy use for set-top boxes isn’t out of reach. In Europe, Sky Broadcasting is already offering customers a simple energy efficient set-top box. The company’s HD-DVR uses 23 watts when in use and 13 when it is in the deep sleep mode. In order to continue to receive information, the boxes wake up for a brief moment every 30 minutes to retrieve information on new programs and recording requests by users. If there is no activity to record the box will go back to sleep.

Sky Broadcasting isn’t necessarily being innovative; it is just practicing smart business. Unlike most of its competitors, Sky can boast of energy savings potential to customers and its “best-in-class” power management.

Will U.S. companies follow Sky’s lead? Not until consumers start pressuring their program providers for better, more efficient set-top devices, say experts. Some manufacturers, such as Cisco Systems, Samsung and Motorola have reported they are not feeling the heat, even though their set-top boxes, depending on the number in a given household, can increase from a few dollars to over $10 a month. In December 2012, after facing potential EPA regulations, TV operators and appliance manufacturers in the U.S. signed onto a volunteer program to improve energy efficiency in the devices they sell and produce. This effort, however, was met by criticism from environmental advocates,  “[T]heir proposal is a far cry from what is needed to significantly decrease the $2 billion worth of electricity these devices waste each year,” Noah Horowitz of NRDC said at the time. Without mandatory improvements across the board very little will actually change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star voluntary rating system for set-top boxes is to be made more stringent by 2013. However, some still believe the government must do more than label the devices, it must actually require them to be more efficient, much like California did under Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s.

“Energy activists must work to influence public policy and to educate consumers,” says Ned Ford of the Sierra Club. “Consumers can’t buy energy-efficient appliances if stores don’t stock them, but stores won’t stock them if they think people will balk at higher up-front costs for greater efficiency. It’s up to the federal government to intervene and require a minimum level of efficiency for all consumer products from appliances to cars.”

Joshua Frank, Managing Editor of CounterPunch, is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, and of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle formatHe can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

More articles by:

JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
Robby Sherwin
Here’s an Idea
Susan Block
Cucks, Cuckolding and Campaign Management
Louis Proyect
The Mafia and the Class Struggle (Part Two)
David Yearsley
Smoke on the Water: Jazz in San Francisco
Elliot Sperber
All of Those Bezos
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail