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Why Set-Top Boxes Are Saving Energy and Money

By: Doug Johnson 20 June 2014

An energy-efficiency revolution is underway, and it has been happening right under your nose (or, more accurately, around your TV). The pay TV and consumer electronics industries have made great strides in reducing the energy consumption of the set-top boxes (STBs) connected to service provider networks. These connected devices allow cable, satellite and telco TV providers to download software enhancements to existing devices already in homes, providing greater sleep capabilities and auto-power down features. An estimated 14 million existing devices in the U.S. have already received these software enhancements, all from industry-led efforts to satisfy consumer demand and achieve savings today. And even more efficient STBs are now on their way to the market. 
 
Given these voluntary steps, it’s especially disappointing to see the recent Los Angeles Times article on the power consumption of STBs and other devices connected to our TVs. The piece misses the mark in providing useful and factual information for consumers. While differences of opinion on how to achieve greater efficiencies are expected, the discussion must be informed by truthful, and not misleading, information.
 
From the very headline of the article – “Cable TV boxes become 2nd biggest energy users in many homes,” – and throughout the article, readers are left with a false picture of both the power consumption of these devices and the current efforts to achieve greater efficiencies. A typical cable TV STB in the U.S. consumes about $1.29 of energy per month, according to our latest peer-reviewed energy use study. Based on the average American household energy consumption of 903  KwH per month, a cable TV STB is responsible for just 1.2 percent  of a typical household’s energy use, as compared to 46 percent for heating and cooling  and 13 percent for other devices  in the household.  
 
Additional “factoids” in the article such as “…saw a rating on the back [of a set-top box] for as much as 500 watts…” and “…a set-top cable box with a digital recorder can consume as much as 35 watts of power, costing about $8 a month for a typical Southern California consumer…” are at best misleading, and at worst, completely false. A 500 watt “rating” on the back of a STB has nothing to do with power consumption and is most likely a UL safety rating. An average STB consumes less than $2 per month of power. Even a DVR STB without the latest energy efficiencies running at 30 watts of power when on, costs about  $3 per month  in Southern California. Most STBs consume far less than 30 watts.
 
The Los Angeles Times story also reported, “The set-top box issue is part of a much larger group of personal electronic devices in homes that represent one of the fastest-growing parts of residential electricity use.” CEA’s forthcoming study, Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in U.S. Homes in 2013, finds the opposite to be true. Despite their significantly higher market penetration in U.S. homes, consumer electronics (CE) now account for a lower percentage of electricity usage per household than they did just three years ago. According to new research, CE devices – including STBs – accounted for just 12 percent of residential electricity consumption in the U.S. last year, a nine percent drop from their energy consumption share in 2010 (13.2 percent). In short, CE devices are using a lower percentage of household energy than they did three years ago, even though our homes have more devices than ever.
 
While the errors in the article are problematic to a healthy and fact-based discussion of the issues around energy efficiency, of much greater concern is the casual dismissal of efforts already underway through a historic agreement among environmental and energy efficiency advocates, government regulators and industry leaders to further reduce power consumption on devices that are already remarkably efficient. The Set-Top Box Energy Conservation Agreement, a partnership signed in late 2013 by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Appliance Standards Awareness Project, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and leading providers and manufacturers of set-top boxes, will deliver significant energy savings to more than 90 million American households and 90 percent of cable and satellite TV subscribers.
 
The DOE encouraged this agreement, and advocates including the NRDC supported it, because they know a voluntary agreement will more rapidly deliver greater energy efficiency to consumers than a government-driven, top-down regulatory approach. The DOE acknowledged that under the very earliest, most optimistic scenario, its regulations on STBs would not be ready until 2018 – and the NRDC spokesman quoted in the story suggested it may be 2022 before government regulations would be in place. Meanwhile, industry-driven energy efficiencies initiatives are already delivering electricity savings and greenhouse gas reductions and are only projected to escalate under the voluntary agreement.
 
The DOE estimates the voluntary agreement will save consumers more than $1 billion in electricity costs, conserve enough electricity to power 700,000 typical homes and avoid over five million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year – and industry estimates place the likely savings at more than $1.6 billion in energy costs. Consumer demand, coupled with industry trends moving away from multiple devices and toward “whole-home” solutions with single devices, could double or triple these savings, a development not even considered by government regulators who inevitably regulate “last year’s devices.” 
 
While we take great issue with the serious factual errors and misleading implications in the Los Angeles Times article, we welcome the growing public dialog on this topic. Consumers, industry, advocates and regulators all deserve to be heard on how we can best achieve real energy savings and climate change progress through all our devices, including STBs. A productive discussion, however, must be based on good data and facts.
 
 

Doug Johnson
Vice President, Technology Policy
Consumer Electronics Association
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