Has Consumer Electronics Energy Use Finally Peaked?

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) just issued its latest report on the amount of electricity used by consumer electronics (CE) and the good news is that it’s finally begun to come down. However, the total is still enormous -- equal to the output of more than 50 large polluting power plants and costing consumers about $20 billion annually

The CEA analysis entitled “Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in U.S. Homes in 2013” found their electricity use had declined to 12 percent of total residential consumption last year. This drop from 13.2 percent in 2010 comes after years of rapid growth due to the increasing number of gadgets in our homes and the huge amounts of energy required to operate the first generation of digital TVs and high-definition set top boxes.

While this is a great development and hopefully a trend that continues, we can’t claim victory over wasted energy in CE products yet. Here are some initial thoughts and observations about the report:

12 percent of a really big number is still a really big number. The report included an inventory of consumer electronics (CE) products in the home and publicly available data on the energy use of each product category. When you add it all up, CEA estimates consumer electronics products now use 169 terawatt hours of electricity per year (TWh/yr., which is a billion kWh/yr.) and highlighted that this is only 12 percent of total residential electricity use. While that may seem small when presented as a percentage, it’s still a really big deal. In fact, CE products:

  • Use the equivalent of more than 50 large (500 megawatt) coal power plants’ worth of electricity and cause millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year; and
  • Cost their users around $20 billion per year to operate.
  • Consume as much electricity each year as 15 million US homes do.

TVs and the stuff attached to them represent more than half of the total CE energy use. The big screen TVs and the devices connected to them -- which include set top boxes, video game consoles, DVD players, etc. -- consumed more than 90 TWh/yr., or over 50 percent of the total. The great story here is that new flat screen TVs now consume less than half the energy needed just eight years ago. In addition to these efficiency gains that save consumers money on their electric bills, new TVs also cost a fraction of what they once did.

These gains were due to a range of policies and manufacturer innovation, which included minimum energy-saving standards set by the California Energy Commission (CEC), ENERGY STAR™ labels that helped consumers identify the more efficient models, and rebates provided by utilities for models that met or exceeded ENERGY STAR levels of energy savings.

(Note: The California standards that required 50 percent reductions of TV energy use by 2013 from 2006 levels have been met by all the manufacturers despite the CEA’s dire predictions that these standards would result in empty store shelves and thousands of lost jobs in California, alone. They didn’t. As California’s population represents such a large share of the market, manufacturers changed over their entire supply chains to meet the California standards and the national market has been transformed. Now consumers in others parts of the country can buy these energy-saving TVs too.)

According to the CEA study, set top boxes are the No. 2 energy-using CE product in the home at 18 percent. Due to renewed commitment by the set top box makers and the companies that buy the boxes such as Comcast, DirecTV, and AT&T, many of the boxes being purchased in 2014 use about 20 to 25 percent less energy than the ones in place in 2012. In time, the fleet of installed boxes will change over to the more efficient ones and consumers will realize significant savings.

Shifting to portable/battery-operated products cuts energy waste. CE products that are battery-operated tend to be optimized for energy efficiency and product designers work hard to cut energy waste in order to maximize battery life. That’s why portable devices such as tablets, laptop computers, and smart phones are very energy efficient and contain cutting-edge technology. Unfortunately, devices like desktop computers and game consoles, which are plugged into the wall and have unlimited power availability, have not been fully optimized and consume a lot more energy than necessary.

Game console energy use is growing and we might see increased CE energy use elsewhere too. It also should be noted that the CEA analysis did NOT include the new game consoles introduced in late 2013 by Microsoft and Sony, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, respectively. Due to their new features and increased performance, these consoles use TWO TIMES more energy annually than the latest models of their predecessors. (For more information, go to NRDC’s game console report.) This growth is largely due to these new consoles drawing relatively high power levels even when consumers think they turned off their consoles, due to always-on features such as network connection, voice command and USB charging that were poorly designed. If other devices adopt these features, will the downward trend in CE energy consumption continue? Another future energy impact is the shift to super high resolution content called 4K or ultra-high definition (UHD), which could significantly increase the energy consumption of TVs and associated equipment--including set-top boxes and home networking equipment.

What happens to the 3.8 billion CE devices when they are no longer used? When you run the math, each household now has around 32 consumer electronics devices, ranging from smart phones, tablets, TVs, to the modems and routers that receive and push this content around our homes. While it wasn’t part of the scope of this report, the consumer electronics industry needs to continue to expand its efforts to make sure this ever-increasing number of gadgets are collected and properly recycled at the end of their useful life.

So while the CEA’s analysis does show a positive trend in our electronic gadgets using less energy over the course of a year, we still have a way to go before anyone should declare victory.