Vampire power problem bigger than expected

The problem of vampire power, also known as phantom load or standby power, has been highlighted in a recent report from Natural Resources Defense Council, a respected US environmental group. Vampire power is the power that today’s appliances consume when they are not in use, or are turned off. Many of us, including Gallondaily’s editor, understood vampire power to be of the order of one or two watts of consumption, basically just the power used by one or two LED lights or the ubiquitous liquid crystal clock. How wrong we were!

The target of the NRDC report is “set-top boxes”, the converter box that takes cable or satellite television service and makes it so that your television can use it.  The problem is that these pieces of equipment cannot be turned off and even when the box does have an on-off switch, turning it off hardly reduces power consumption at all. To eliminate the phantom load one has to unplug the appliance and doing this may interfere with the functionality of the equipment, possibly meaning a very slow startup and perhaps even a reboot or a download of needed data when it is turned back on.

The study shows that even low end set-top boxes are typically consuming about 15 watts and that high end boxes, such as  digital video recorders, are often consuming more than 30 watts and in some cases more than 40 watts. That is when they are turned off, so they are consuming that power 24 hours a day 365 days a year. NRDC estimates that all the set-top boxes in the US are consuming 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, equivalent to the annual output of nine average (500 MW) coal-fired power plants. There is no reason to believe that the situation in Canada is any better.

Energy efficient set-top boxes are available and NRDC is urging accelerated roll-out in the North American market. Although NRDC is not promoting a regulatory approach, it would not surprise Gallondaily to see activist environmental legislators pick up on this report as a basis for legislation regulating the phantom loads consumed by information and entertainment technology. Maybe that would not be such a bad thing.

The complete NRDC report is available at http://www.nrdc.org/energy/settopboxes.asp

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