Wednesday, July 6, 2011

New energy hogs

Back when I was in college, I had an "Energy and Public Policy" professor who was on a not-so-private vendetta against folks who engaged in straight-line trend projections (for example: if energy use had grown at 5% per annum for 15 years, it should be safe to assume that energy consumption should grow at 5% for the next 15 years.)  This professor was easily the brightest guy I ever had for anything (he was a doctor, doctor, doctor, two Ph.Ds--Physics and Public Affairs--and an MD) so I tended to pay him a great deal of attention.

The reasons he had for being so dead set against using such trend projections is that they tended to cause over-building of electrical generation.  Not only did he think it was insane to predict continuous compound growth in anything, he claimed such mindlessness led to bad decision-making that favored investment in new power plants over investments in more energy efficient technologies.  While ridiculing a report that called for 250 new nukes in class one day he asked, "Who is going to use all that new power?"  To answer that question, he showed that someone had authored a paper that called for lighting every mile of the interstate highway system.

"Well," he mused, "Maybe we could just do without all those new power plants and use the headlights on our vehicles."

Since then, power companies HAVE come to rely on energy conservation to counter the effects of a major slow-down in the building of new generation capacity.  And you can still drive long stretches of the Interstate system where the only illumination occurs at the interchanges.  Yet power consumption still grows without such grandiose schemes.  It turns out that millions of stupid little decisions can easily substitute for a big dumb plan.  Behold the DVR.

Money Sucking Vampires Emanating From Your TV: Beware of Cable, Satellite, and DVR Boxes
Noah Horowitz 06-16-2011 12:38:21 PM
This week the cable TV industry is having their big annual meeting in Chicago. The meeting includes three days worth of in-depth technical sessions and it looks like not a single one covers the energy use or environmental impact of the ubiquitous set-top box (otherwise known as a cable, satellite or DVR box) that the cable companies install in your home when you sign up for their service. This is a pity as the set-top boxes in the field today act like vampires by sucking up huge amounts of electricity all night long even though the user has turned off their box. A fact to get your blood boiling (vampire inspired pun intended) and interested in reading further: Due to outdated designs, today’s cable and satellite set-top boxes consume a whopping $2 billion per year of electricity when they are turned “off.
Now that I have your attention, I’d like to highlight the findings of a report NRDC released a couple of days ago on the energy use of the set-top boxes including the DVRs installed by the cable, satellite and telephone companies that enable you to access pay-TV. NRDC and its consultant Ecos recently went into the field and monitored the power used by basic set-top boxes and DVRs that were connected to a wide range of service providers including Time Warner, Comcast, Dish Network, Direct TV, AT&T and Verizon.
The biggest finding from our field work was that the only way to really turn these boxes off is to unplug them -- not an attractive option. For almost all of the boxes we tested, hitting the power button simply dims the clock or display. For a typical DVR, instead of consuming 30 Watts when on, the box used 29 Watts, only the difference of one Watt. When you add it all up, this means it’s costing our nation $2 billion per year in electric bills to power devices when we are NOT using them. That’s money and energy we simply don’t have to spare these days.
Here are some of the key findings of our research: 
  • More than 80% of U.S. home subscribe to some form of pay-TV. There are more than 160 million set-top boxes installed in U.S. homes, or roughly one box for every two Americans.
  • On a national level set-top boxes are consuming 27 billion kilowatt-watt hours per year. (That’s equivalent to the annual electricity use of the entire state of Maryland.)
  • It takes the equivalent of nine coal burning power plants (500 MW) to operate these devices. more  
So there you have it Dr. Dean.  A trinket that requires more energy to run than something important like a refrigerator.  What is even worse, this juice sucker could easily be at least five times more energy-efficient.  So a lot more energy is being wasted simply because the folks in the entertainment business chose some very cheap and lazy industrial design.


  1. Energy Star is on the case! My co-worker is working on our set-top box specification. Should help energy consumption move in the right direction.

  2. Let me know the new specs and when it will be ready for production and I'll write about it.