New set-top boxes placed in our homes by a cable, satellite, or telephone company will soon use about 20 percent less energy than current models due to a new agreement reached with leading environmental groups. This is great news for our wallets and the environment. Upon full stock turnover, this translates to almost $400 million in future annual utility bill savings and more than 2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions avoided every year.
How did we get here?
Back in 2012, the more than 200 million set-top boxes in U.S. homes consumed almost 11 large (500 MW) coal-burning power plants’ worth of electricity annually and consumers were paying around $3 billion in utility bills to run them. After extensive negotiations, a Voluntary Agreement (VA) was reached between the advocacy groups NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and ACEEE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy) and the pay TV service providers—companies like Comcast, Charter, AT&T and Dish Networks—to cut the energy use of set-top boxes they purchase to supply to their customers.
Since then, the progress made to improve set-top box energy efficiency and reduce their energy use is quite impressive and can best be illustrated by the numbers shown in in this table excerpted from the 2019 VA progress report. As of the end of 2019, national set-top box energy use has been cut roughly in half, with more savings to come!
Where to from here?
Since 2013, the service providers have committed under the VA to meet specific annual energy limits for 90 percent of the set-top boxes they purchase for their customers each year. The VA signatories recently agreed to an extension that ratchets up the efficiency requirements for new boxes purchased beginning in 2023. The new boxes will, on average, use around 20 percent less energy, which is great incremental progress. We estimate national set-top box energy use is due to go down another 3-terawatt hours per year once the existing stock of boxes turns over (that’s $400 million dollars’ worth of electricity). At that point, we will be saving another large coal burning power plant’s worth of annual electricity generation and avoiding the emissions that would have come with it.
Two other big trends to know about
The industry’s method of delivering and storing the shows we watch is shifting. Most of the service providers are switching to Internet Protocol (IP)-based equipment and shows that we record will be stored in a cloud-based DVR rather than in a DVR in our home. This is a positive development because most consumers can now get rid of their high energy-consuming DVR box that uses around 125 to 200-plus kilowatt hours per year (kWh/yr.)--depending on its age and efficiency--and switch to a much smaller IP box the size of a small paperback book that delivers the same functionality and typically uses less than 50 kWh/yr.
In some cases, the service provider offers an app that allows users to get rid of their set-top boxes entirely. That way the user accesses content directly via a downloaded app on their Smart TV or through a super-efficient device like an Apple TV, Kindle Fire, or Roku box, which use less than 25 kWh/yr.
What about upstream energy use?
While the amount of energy saved by the efficiency gains made to set-top boxes and the declining number of set-top boxes in our homes is well-documented, little is known about the energy used to store this video content in data centers and deliver it to our homes. At the urging of NRDC and ACEEE, the industry agreed as part of the VA extension to fund a joint study to assess the upstream energy use and emissions from the service providers’ operations. As the service providers are the ones who pay for the electricity in their data centers and since DVRs and basic cable boxes had a design limitation whereby the boxes continued to consume near full power levels when not in use, we are pretty confident that the switch to IP video content and the cloud is a net energy and carbon saver. The study will also look at the renewable energy content of the electricity used in the service providers’ data centers.
What can you do?
In order to reduce your carbon footprint and save some money, we encourage subscribers to call their service provider and ask to update their equipment to the new IP-based equipment. And better yet, see if they offer an app and you can go box-free! If you have one or more DVRs, you should definitely look to swap them out and you’ll save around $25 a year on your electric bill for each one you return.
Meanwhile, NRDC will continue to serve on the Steering Committee for the Voluntary Agreement to monitor the industry’s compliance with the terms of the VA and we look forward to reporting on even more energy and carbon savings in the future due to this collaboration. Stay tuned!