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As TVs grow, so do electric bills

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2005



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.

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"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.

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.

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