Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that cable and other pay TV boxes that sit atop television sets consume massive amounts of energy, in part because they are always on, even when the TV is off?
— Sam Winston, Metarie, LA
We hear a lot about how much energy modern day flat screen TV sets consume, but the innocuous set-top boxes that drive them, along with their built-in digital video recorders, may be even more to blame. A recent analysis conducted by the consulting firm Ecos on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that “the average new cable high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) consumes more than half the energy of an average new refrigerator and more than an average new flat-panel television.” Overall, set-top boxes in the U.S. consume some 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. This is equal to the annual output of six average (500 megawatt) coal-fired power plants and accounts for the emission of 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Part of the reason these boxes are such energy hogs is that they typically operate at nearly full power even during the two-thirds of the time when they are not actively in use driving TV screens or recording to built-in DVRs. “As a nation, we spend $2 billion each year to power these boxes when they are not being actively used,” reports NRDC.
To make matters worse, American consumers have little if any choice about which set-top boxes they get from their cable or satellite service providers. Since the providers usually own the boxes yet don’t have to pay consumers’ electric bills, they have little incentive to utilize or develop more efficient models. In Europe, Sky Broadcasting is beginning to distribute more efficient equipment to subscribers there. NRDC is urging the largest pay-TV service providers in the U.S. (Comcast, Time Warner, DirecTV, Dish Network, Verizon and AT&T) to heed the efficiency call with their own set-top box and DVR offerings.
Redesigning set-top boxes to power down when not in use is perhaps the biggest opportunity for energy savings. “Innovation to reduce power consumption when not in active use—such as has occurred with mobile phones, which also work on a subscriber basis and require secure connections—is sorely needed in set-top boxes,” counsels NRDC. Also, re-jiggering content delivery systems so that only one main set-top box sends signals to all the televisions in the house (or to lower power “thin client” boxes) could also cut down household electric bills and carbon footprints. The group adds that “better designed pay-TV set-top boxes could reduce the energy use of the installed base of boxes by 30 percent to 50 percent by 2020.”
Last year the U.S. government released new energy efficiency standards for set-top boxes within its EnergyStar appliance efficiency rating program. While this new specification is a step in the right direction, consumers have little knowledge about such options. NRDC urges pay-TV subscribers to request that their providers make available set-top boxes and DVRs that meet the newer EnergyStar 4.0 standards. The more of us that request such improvements, the likelier they are to happen. And the cable or satellite provider that can save customers money while reducing overall environmental impact may just win over an increasingly large sector of the American people that actually cares about being green.