Tuning into Better Measurement of TV Energy Use

Today’s new televisions are getting bigger and often come with a wide range of new features, likely driving up national TV energy use. But it’s difficult to assess how much more these new televisions may be costing U.S. households and the amount of extra climate-warming pollution being created from running them due to shortcomings in the official test used for measuring TV energy use. That’s about to change, thanks to a unique agreement announced today.

Credit: iStock/monkeybusinessimages

The leading TV makers, including the two biggest (Samsung and LG), their trade association the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), and environmental advocacy groups such as the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) announced their commitment to work together to:

  • Create a more accurate test method for measuring TV energy use;
  • Test a cross-section of TVs with the updated test method; and
  • Develop a set of efficiency targets designed to drive down national TV energy use, while preserving the user’s excellent viewing experience.

Why this matters

There are about 285 million televisions in U.S. households and as of a few years ago, they consumed roughly 35 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity annually (see Dec 2017 Franhofer study). That adds up to around $4.5 billion and a dozen large (500 MW) coal-burning power plants’ worth of electricity annually.

Americans once thought a 32-inch TV was pretty big, but TVs with screen diameters of 50 inches and higher are increasingly becoming the norm and even 65-inch TVs are flying off the shelf at Costco and other retailers. But as screen size grows, so does a TV’s energy use in most cases. In addition, TVs now come with lots of new, cool features and capabilities, including internet connectivity, higher resolution screens, and the ability to be controlled through voice commands via a wirelessly connected speaker.  

If not designed properly, these new features can dramatically increase a TV’s energy use. For example, during testing by NRDC and its consultant Pacific Crest Laboratories, we found standby power levels of 10 to 15 watts in some internet-connected TVs when people thought they were “turned off.” This was due to the TV staying “awake,” awaiting a request from the smart speaker or from a phone or tablet to wake up and display a video or show. As TVs spend most of their time in standby mode, this additional power really adds up and, in some cases, can result in a doubling of a TV’s annual energy use. Fortunately, a few TV manufacturers have already figured out how to deliver the same capabilities for under a watt of electricity use, and, if motivated, the others should be able to catch up soon. 

The Department of Energy test method currently fails to connect new TVs to a live internet signal during the test and as a result, TV standby power can be grossly under-reported. Similarly, some of a TV’s energy-saving features may be enabled in the default mode, which is the state in which they are tested. However, those features get automatically disabled in some TV models when the user selects another picture setting, which increases the energy use substantially.

Where to from here?

To its credit, the TV industry now appears committed to finding fixes to the current test method for measuring TV energy use and to encourage policy makers to adopt the updated test method in the future. This way, the manufacturers’ reported energy use for their TVs will better reflect the actual levels typically experienced by consumers—and manufacturers can compete for those customers on a level playing field regarding a TV’s efficiency and operating costs. In addition, EPA is updating the requirements for ENERGY STAR®-labelled TVs, which will enable consumers to easily identify and purchase the more efficient models on the market.

Once the test method work is completed in the next several weeks, the industry has committed to test the energy use of a cross-section of new TVs and to share that data with efficiency advocates like NRDC. We will then enter into discussions to establish potential energy use limits for new TVs as a means to drive down the economic and environmental costs from TV viewing. 

If all goes well, we will soon jointly announce an agreement whereby the TV industry agrees to improve the efficiency of its new TVs and discontinue selling the energy hogs. While it’s premature to predict what the actual savings might be, it will undoubtedly include some really impressive numbers like billions of dollars of utility bill savings for consumers and millions of tons of avoided carbon pollution from the power plants that generate the power to run our TVs.

Now that’s certainly something worth tuning in to!

And lastly, a big shout out to the folks at the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) for their leadership and funding of the exploratory work to upgrade the test method and the testing of a wide range of TVs.

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