2017 US Set Top Box Energy Use Down $1.4 Billion

National set top box energy use is down by roughly a third since 2012 and this means consumers are spending $1.4 billion less per year to power the black boxes connected to their TVs. When you add it all up, the more efficient boxes are saving four power plants worth of electricity per year, and 8 million fewer tons of carbon emissions were emitted in 2017. Good progress, and more is on the way!

Why is set top box energy use going down?

Over 80 percent of U.S. households subscribe to pay-TV services from their cable, phone, or satellite company and there are more than 200 million set-top boxes installed in America’s homes. In 2012, these boxes consumed more than 10 typical coal-burning power plants worth of electricity a year, much of which occurred when the TV was off, and the box was not in use. As currently designed, these devices draw almost as much power when they are off as when they are on.

Things have since gotten better overall due to a voluntary agreement signed in 2012 between the pay-TV service providers (companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Dish Network), leading environmental groups including NRDC, and the box makers to reduce national set top box energy use. The agreement set limits on how much annual energy each type of box purchased by the service providers can consume. In 2017, more stringent energy-saving requirements went into effect.

The savings from this agreement continue to grow as the older, less efficient models are replaced by newer, more efficient ones. Another positive development is the whole home DVR which allows customers to just have one DVR in their home while still receiving DVR-like service (ability to record, playback and pause shows) throughout their home. Rather than having a DVR on their second and third TVs, consumers can instead choose a much lower power consuming box called a thin client. 

Per the 2017 Annual Report that was just published by the Steering Committee that oversees this agreement, the cumulative savings over the past five years from this agreement add up to 27.8 TWh (Terra-watt hours). To put that into perspective, that’s $3.5 billion in total consumer energy bill savings and is equivalent to the annual power consumption of all the homes in Los Angeles.

Note, NRDC along with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) are on the Steering Committee and we will continue to work to ensure the voluntary agreement achieves the energy savings it was designed to deliver.

Annual Energy Saved by the Voluntary Agreement Procurement Commitments

Where to from here?

Today’s set top boxes still consume near full power levels when they are turned “off.” Cellphones and tablets use well under a watt and laptops 2 watts or less of standby power and turn back on almost instantly. In comparison, most of today’s DVRs still draw 15 to 20 Watts of power continuously when NOT in use. As currently designed, set top boxes have unacceptably long wake times if they were previously unplugged or put into a true low power standby mode. The industry recognizes this problem and via the renewal of the voluntary agreement, has committed to work with their supply chains to develop new products that have much lower standby power levels AND can turn back on quickly after the user returns and  hits the power button on their remote control.

A set top box free world?

The service providers are also working with the TV manufacturers and makers of low power consuming devices like Roku and Apple TV to deliver the same types of services directly on a customer’s smart (i.e., internet connected) TV through the use of an “app.” This would enable the customer to get rid of their set top box, cut their electric bill, and help prevent several more million tons of national climate change pollution every year. The industry has begun to roll-out the first generation of these apps and some of the service providers have additional homework to do to perfect the customer experience. For example, some don’t yet offer the DVR feature, whereby a recorded show can be stored in the cloud for future viewing. We are hopeful they will work out the remaining issues and actively promote this option to their customers in the near future.

And if everything goes right, I’ll be able to watch and record my beloved Golden State Warriors playing in the NBA finals next June through an app on my TV, without a set top box and any of the associated energy use and resultant pollution it would have caused. Game on!

About the Authors

Noah Horowitz

Director, Center for Energy Efficiency Standards, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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