Pay-TV Industry's Initial Efforts to Reduce Set-Top Box Energy Use Really Beginning to Pay Dividends


A new report out today shows the cable, satellite and telco service providers--companies like Comcast, Dish Network, and AT&T that bring pay TV into our homes--have begun to really focus on the amount of energy consumed by the almost 200 million set-top boxes installed across America.

In fact, the new black boxes purchased by these companies in 2013 and 2014 to provide to their customers used $500 million less electricity than the 2012 models did and as a result, 3 million metric tons of harmful carbon dioxide emissions were avoided over the past two years. This progress is really important because set-top boxes were estimated to draw $3 billion worth of electricity annually in 2012.

According to the just-released 2014 "Annual Report on the Voluntary Agreement for Ongoing Improvement to the Energy Efficiency of Set-Top Boxes," the industry has met almost all of its near-term procurement and reporting commitments under the agreement reached three years ago.

(Note: NRDC is a participant in the agreement, which requires industry to submit an annual progress report, and serves on the Steering Committee implementing it.)

The latest findings

Most noteworthy in today's second annual progress report, which is required under the agreement:

  • New DVRs use 33 percent less energy. The ever-popular digital video recorders (DVRs) purchased in 2014 use an average of 179 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, which is down from the 269 kWh annual consumption by models bought in 2012;
  • More energy-efficient devices are increasingly being installed on the second and third TVs in the home. With the introduction in the last few years of whole-home DVRs, all the TVs in a dwelling can receive live or previously recorded shows without the need for a DVR to be connected to each TV. The secondary TVs in a home can provide this functionality via a much smaller and less energy-consuming box called a thin client. Energy use of the thin clients can be as low as 50 kWh per year.
  • Service providers have posted information on their websites on the energy use of their new set-top boxes. Consumers can finally access information on the energy use of the set-top boxes that their service providers have purchased for customer use since January 1, 2013. The back of the Annual Report published today also contains a complete listing so you can see how your service provider's boxes stack up to the competition.

The big remaining energy-saving opportunity for the industry is bringing down the roughly $1.5 billion worth of electricity that set-top boxes still consume annually when they are not being actively used. Despite the significant improvements made by the industry thus far, the newest boxes still draw almost the same amount of power when they are on as when customers believe they are shut "off" because no one is watching or recording a show.

Unlike most products, consumers do not buy their home set-top box. Instead, their cable, satellite, or telephone company provides it along with the pay-TV service.

But informed consumers can still take steps to cut their utility bills when shopping for service by requesting a whole home DVR for the main television and a thin client for the second and third TVs, and that each set-top box meets ENERGY STAR™ Version 4.1 efficiency levels.

What's ahead?

The pay-TV industry is undergoing massive changes, including shifting in many cases to an IP (internet protocol)-based system that has the potential to dramatically reduce national set-top box energy use. For example, instead of storing shows on the DVR in your home, the show can be saved in the "cloud" instead for a lot less energy. These changes open up a realm of possibilities and we are hoping that the industry includes power-scaling technology in their next-generation devices so these devices only work as hard as the task at hand. In other words, let's have our new set-top boxes go to sleep and consume very little power in the middle of the night, just like most of us do.