As TVs grow, so do electric bills

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Not long ago, Andrew Fanara was shopping with his wife for a new big-screen television. Everything was going fine, until the sales clerk discovered Mr. Fanara was an energy watchdog for the federal government. Pulling Fanara aside, the clerk confessed: His own new 61-inch TV gulped electricity the way a big SUV guzzles gasoline.

"The month after he got it, he got a call from his landlord, who noticed a big jump in the utility bill," recalls Fanara, team leader of the Energy Star program at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "It was the kid's big-screen television."

Revelations about energy-munching appliances aren't uncommon in Fanara's job. But lately, he's hearing more about big-screen TVs - and that's worrisome. With sales expected to skyrocket - and with only outmoded testing and efficiency standards available to alert people about energy consumption - digital big-screen TVs are poised to generate big hikes in home energy use and pollution, unless manufacturers act swiftly to adopt more efficient technologies.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

That's one reason EPA officials are scheduled later this monthto meet with officials of the California Energy Commission, utility company Pacific Gas & Electric, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group. Their goal: to discuss best ways to measure TV energy use - and ways to get manufacturers to adopt energy-saving technologies faster.

"The price of these big-screen TVs is coming down, so more and more people will soon be able to afford them," says Noah Horowitz, a senior NRDC scientist. "If we do nothing, it will lock-in power consumption at higher levels. People keep a TV five to 15 years, so we really need to get started making them as efficient as they can be."

Already, televisions account for about 4 percent of annual residential electricity use in the United States - enough to power all of the homes in the state of New York for a year, according to a new NRDC study. Today there are about 266 million TVs, and that number is growing by 3.5 million per year. By 2009, when half of all new TV sales are expected to be extended- or high-definition digital sets with big screens, TV energy use will reach about 70 billion kilowatt-hours per year nationwide - about 50 percent higher than at present. Throw in a DVD and VCR player, a pair of high-definition set-top boxes, and other household TVs, and the total TV-related energy use for the home rises to about 10 percent, the NRDC estimates.

Bigger screens aren't the only culprits for TV's growing energy draw. The nation's move to high-definition TV, or HDTV, requires sets to deliver more picture clarity, which draws more power. Also, Americans are watching some 16 percent more TV than in the 1980s - if DVD and video-game viewing is included, according to the Nielsen Group.

Using the best available technology, however, could reduce this new generation of big-screen TV "active mode" consumption by at least 25 percent, saving 10 billion kilowatt-hours per year, the NRDC estimates. In addition to chopping residential electric bills by $1 billion, it would prevent 7 million extra tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, the group says.

A solution may happen without federal intervention, industry officials say. "Consumer electronics are vastly different from electromechanical devices like refrigerators and dishwashers," says Douglas Johnson, senior director of technology policy at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), an industry trade group based in Arlington, Va. "There's already a great focus on efficient design and minimizing excess energy usage that produces heat, which is the enemy of long life for electronics. So there's already a built-in incentive for efficiency."

Digital TV sales have grown from zero in 1996 to about 12 percent of all TV sales today. That's expected to rise to 53 percent by 2008, the CEA reports.

"With the trend toward larger and larger TVs, these displays could use more power, depending on the technology they employ," Fanara says. "So it makes sense for the [EPA] to write new specs that recognize the most efficient products in the marketplace so consumers can at least address the energy consumption in the buying equation."

Electricity use doesn't always register with TV shoppers. Just ask Stephen Baldridge of Providence Village, Texas. When he and his wife, Hollie, bought a big-screen TV last year, they never thought twice about how much energy it would use. And they still don't worry about it. Electric bills don't seem much higher, says Mr. Baldridge, a self-professed "big TV watcher" at about five hours a day. Still, he'd like television manufacturers to keep power consumption to a minimum. "It would be nice if [manufacturers] could do that and keep the electric bill down for us," he says.

New sets, new standards?

America needs a new way to measure the energy efficiency of television sets.

Currently, federal standards measure only a set's "standby mode," when the TV is idle, even though "active mode" accounts for 80 to 95 percent of its annual energy use. This can lead to some confusing results. A television that earns the government's Energy Star rating for its efficiency in standby mode might draw more power in active mode than another model that didn't earn the label.

Including active mode is definitely on the agenda for revising Energy Star standards, says Andrew Fanara, team leader of the program for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But how to test it is a complex question.

The only nationally recognized active-mode test is the US Department of Energy's nearly three-decades-old process for black-and-white models. It uses a static black-and-white display pattern - even though power consumption in today's models varies widely depending on the activity and intensity of colors displayed on screen.

In its testing of big-screen TVs, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) used a two-minute clip of the hit comedy "Shrek." The results showed considerable variation in power use. Even similar size TVs could consume "drastically different amounts of power" in active mode, the report says. One 50-inch plasma high-definition TV (HDTV) was estimated to use 679 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. A 32-inch liquid-crystal display with HDTV capability was pegged at 387 kWh per year. By contrast, an older analog 34-inch TV was estimated to use just 209 kWh per year, NRDC tests found.

The NRDC's Noah Horowitz hopes the EPA will create a single annual energy-consumption number for TVs, much like those found on today's refrigerators or hot-water heaters. He'd also like the agency to set mandatory minimum-efficiency standards for cable and satellite set-top boxes. These boxes could use more than 20 billion kWh per year, at a cost of about $2 billion, another NRDC study says. In that scenario, five 500-megawatt power plants would be needed to run these boxes, emitting 15 million tons per year of carbon dioxide, a global-warming pollutant.

While embracing voluntary Energy Star standards, industry officials disagree with the idea of mandatory efficiency standards. "When an arbitrary standard is placed on a product, it will constrain use and innovation," says Douglas Johnson, senior director of technology policy at the Consumer Electronics Association.

Power sappers

The average US household used 10,656 kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2001. What used the most?

• Air-conditioning 16%

• Refrigerator 14

• Space heating 10

• Water heater 9

• Lighting 9

• Clothes dryer 6%

• Freezer 4

• Furnace fan 3

• Electric range top 3

Source: US Energy Information Administration

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...