The Pay TV Industry Has Tuned into Set-top Boxes that Waste Less Energy

After years of ever-increasing energy use, the amount of electricity used by those black set-top boxes provided by the cable, satellite and telephone companies has begun to go down, according to a report published today. In fact, national set-top box energy use decreased by $168 million in 2013, which is equivalent to taking a small 250-megawatt power plant (and its pollution) offline.

The renewed effort by the pay TV industry--which includes the likes of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DIRECTV, Dish Network, AT&T and many others, plus their suppliers--to cut energy use is due to a Voluntary Agreement signed by these companies whereby they committed to develop and purchase more energy efficient boxes.

The Voluntary Agreement signatories, which includes NRDC and other efficiency groups,  estimate the savings will grow to at least $1 billion per year and three large (500 megawatt) power plants’ worth of electricity savings once the existing stock turns over to the agreement’s next (Tier 2) set of energy-saving requirements sometime after 2017.

As part of the agreement, the Voluntary Agreement's steering committee agreed to issue an annual progress report. Key findings from today’s report, the first under the accord, include:

  • National set-top box energy use went down by almost 5 percent in 2013. That’s equal to the amount of electricity consumed in a year by all the homes in Pittsburgh.
  • On average, new boxes purchased by the service providers in 2013 use around 14 percent less annual energy compared to the installed stock in 2012.
  • All service providers now offer a whole home DVR (digital video recorder) that allows viewers to watch live and recorded shows on multiple TVs without the need to attach a DVR to each television, leading to considerable household energy savings.
  • For the first time, service providers are now publicly disclosing the "on" and "sleep mode" power and the annual energy use of each of their new boxes (go to page 26 of the annual report or to your service provider’s website). 
  • This fall an independent firm will test the set-top boxes in a cross-section of homes to verify the accuracy of the energy use numbers published by the service providers.

What does this mean for consumers? Unlike most products, consumers do not buy their home set top box. Instead, their cable, satellite, or telephone company provides them. But informed consumers can still take steps to cut their utility bills when shopping for service.

  1. If you are signing up for a DVR (that nifty box that allows you to easily record and play back shows) and also for service for more than one TV, make sure to request a whole home DVR for the main television and a “thin client” for the second and third TVs. The thin client is a much smaller and simpler box that uses about around three times less energy than a DVR and will help reduce your electric bill and environmental footprint.
  2. To get the most efficient set-top box, request one that meets ENERGY STAR™ Version 4.1. These use much less energy than older boxes. Don’t just ask for an ENERGY STAR-labeled model as you might instead be given one that only meets the older ENERGY STAR 3 requirements, which are less stringent.

Where to from here? Each year the savings and benefits of the Voluntary Agreement will increase as service providers purchase newer, more efficient boxes to replace their existing stock, which includes a lot of energy hogs. The biggest remaining energy and monetary savings opportunity is to bring down the amount of power consumed by these devices when the user is neither watching nor recording a show. Unfortunately, today’s models still consume almost as much power when they are “off” as when they are being used. Hopefully consumers will soon be able to receive set top boxes that use just a trickle of energy when no one’s watching TV, such as in the middle of the night, which means they’ll be in a deep sleep at the same time we are.