The Stealthy Energy Saver

Noah Horowitz obsesses over the imperceptible ways your television, computer, lightbulbs, and dryer are wasting electricity—so you don’t have to.

Credit: Hiya Images/Media Bakery

Some carbon-cutting strategies are hard to miss: hundreds of 1,500-foot windmills along the highway, or a Prius parked in the driveway, for example. But the ones NRDC senior scientist Noah Horowitz specializes in are much more subtle. By taking on everyday energy wasters like televisions, video games, and lightbulbs, he has helped conserve upwards of 20,000 megawatts of electricity over the years—enough to eliminate the need for dozens of large power plants—with tiny tweaks that most people might never even notice.

Today, Horowitz heads up NRDC’s Center for Energy Efficiency—a unique initiative with a mission he’s been shaping for more than a decade. “I had this aha moment in 2004,” Horowitz says, describing when he began to notice flat-panel televisions in airports, bars, restaurants, and gyms. “Not only were there more of them running for more hours per day than ever before, but they also seemed to be getting bigger each year. How much energy must they be using?”

As an environmental engineer, Horowitz felt compelled to find out whether the newer flat screens used more energy than the older, boxy televisions. Very little information existed comparing different sizes and types of TVs, so he and some colleagues developed what he called the “Shrek test.” “We sweet-talked our way into a Circuit City with a Shrek DVD and some power meters and measured how much electricity various models used when playing a specific two-minute clip of the movie,” Horowitz says.

It turned out that flat panels did indeed use more energy than older models. Some of the bigger sets used more electricity per year than a refrigerator. Even among sets of the same type and size, there were significant variations. “This meant that the consumer really had no hope of making even a reasonable rough guess about which set might use less electricity,” Horowitz says.

He was appalled, but also inspired. So he embarked on what would be a five-year quest to get electricity-hogging sets off of store shelves, starting in his home state of California. Under Horowitz’s guidance, NRDC published the results of formal television efficiency tests and reached out to policy makers to develop an updated test method for measuring the energy use of new TVs. Horowitz’s group also pushed for an update to the Energy Star label for TVs, to help consumers identify the better-performing models on the market, and asked the California Energy Commission to adopt minimum efficiency standards for new TVs sold in the state.

Not surprisingly, the Consumer Electronics Association—the industry group that represents television manufacturers—was not too happy about the idea of mandatory efficiency standards and launched a big-budget public relations campaign against Horowitz’s initiative. “They claimed that store shelves would be empty, that the California standards were too strict and most TVs could never meet them, that thousands of jobs would be lost, and that everyone would drive to Nevada to buy televisions,” Horowitz recalls. “They even set up this faux-grassroots group to fight us called Californians for Smart Energy.”

Undeterred, Horowitz and NRDC continued to argue the case for more efficient televisions to the California Energy Commission. And in 2009, the state adopted new standards requiring televisions to improve efficiency by 50 percent within four years.

“Not one of the CEA’s predictions came true,” says Horowitz. “The standards were met on time, no jobs were lost, consumers always had plenty of options, and now televisions simply use less electricity without any impact on the way they perform.” Since California makes up such a large share of the market, its standards have become de facto national ones. The resulting efficiency improvements save about $10 billion per year in energy costs.

Horowitz then turned his attention to the things attached to the television—like cable set-top boxes and video game consoles—which together he calls “the TV ecosystem.” He persuaded the cable and satellite television industries to make set-top boxes that use less electricity, saving another $1 billion per year and the equivalent of at least three large power plants’ worth of electricity. He also convinced video-game manufacturers to make improvements to consoles’ “sleep” modes, trimming even more waste.

Now Horowitz’s work has expanded to include other elements of the home that run on electricity. He was one of the architects of federal legislation to phase out incandescent lightbulbs, for example. The resulting switch to LED bulbs will account for $12.5 billion a year in cost savings, or 30 large power plants' worth of electricity.

Next up: the laundry room. “There is massive savings potential in the way clothes dryers run,” Horowitz points out. His research has found that households could save $4 billion a year in electricity costs if driers sold in the United States were updated to the standards of those now on the market in Europe, Asia, and Australia. So he plans to try to revolutionize the laundry industry, just as he did with the TV industry.

Sure, dramatic technological innovations and major lifestyle changes are lovely. But in the meantime, Horowitz will keep plugging along by finding and pushing for small, smart energy tweaks—and steadily moving us toward a greener future.

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