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Consumer Electronics Energy Use Down, Industry Says, But Is It Claiming Victory Too Soon?

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The shift away from desktop computers to mobile devices might have helped reduce energy use from devices, but large amounts of energy are still required to power the data being driven to those devices. (Photograph courtesy Yutaka Tsutano/Flickr)

Thanks to the demise of the cathode ray tube, and with assistance from a shift from personal computers to tablets, Americans are using less energy to run their home entertainment and information technology devices, according to a new study commissioned by the folks who make the stuff. But critics said that progress so far has been more in spite of the industry than because of it, and that more progress needs to be made.

Research carried out for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) by the Fraunhofer USA Center for Sustainable Energy Systems shows the electricity consumption of home consumer electronics (CE) fell from 193 terawatt hours in 2010 to 169 terawatt hours in 2013. That translated to a decline from 13.2 percent of residential electricity consumption to 12 percent. The decline came despite a big increase in the number of devices in use, from 2.9 billion to 3.8 billion.

In a press release, CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro said the study, based on hundreds of telephone interviews with a random sampling of the population, showed that “energy efficiency improvements for consumer electronics are best driven by innovation, competition, voluntary agreements and programs such as Energy Star” – which, of course, leaves out mandatory standards.

Energy efficiency advocates, after a quick look at the 158-page study [PDF], weren’t interpreting things quite the same way.

Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email that he hadn’t had a chance to validate the numbers in the report. But taking them at face value, “a big driver in reducing the energy use of CE devices has been the mandatory efficiency standards set by the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE),” he said.

Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, echoed that point, and asserted the CEA was taking credit for some progress that wasn’t really of their doing.

“The decreases (in energy use) aren’t a function of them making their products more efficient,” Cooper said in an interview. “For instance, on computers, there’s been a move to portables – to smart phones and tablets. These devices are extremely energy efficient because the market functions well to make them efficient. But with the things we plug in, where the market doesn’t encourage efficiency, the industry is still doing a terrible job.”

Regarding computers, the Fraunhofer researchers said that altogether they consumed 25 percent less energy in 2013 than in 2010, as tablet use grew from 4 million to 100 million. The shift away from desktop computers also meant fewer monitors drawing power, further decreasing energy use in the category. In all, computers accounted for 13 percent of consumer electronics energy consumed.

For TVs, which accounted for 30 percent of the CE energy consumed, the study said the number of plugged in sets fell by 20 percent as “a large portion of older, less-efficient CRT displays have been removed from service.”

We’re still spending as much time watching TV, the study said, but “power draw has continued to decrease (from an average of 104 watts in 2010 to 90 watts), even while average screen size continues to increase (34 inches in 2013, up from 29 inches in 2010 and 26 inches in 2006), owing to the greater efficiency of new displays.”

Horowitz said TVs remain a concern, however, because of “the potential switch to ultra high definition TV.” He added, too, that the study appeared not to take in account new, energy-hogging game consoles that arrived late last year, nor did it acknowledge “two other important components of consumer electronics energy use – the energy to produce the product, and the energy associated in supporting their use – things like the data centers that process our emails or help stream videos from Netflix.”

Set-top boxes, the devices that make digital media from (in most cases) cable or satellite providers playable on our televisions, are a major concern of efficiency advocates, as well. Running around the clock at some level, they accounted for 18 percent of consumer electronics energy consumption in 2013, according to Fraunhofer.

The NRDC is party to a voluntary agreement with industry groups brokered late last year that “will improve set-top box efficiency by 10 to 45 percent by 2017,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy, but Horowitz recently told the  Los Angeles Times  that the agreement was just a first step, one agreed to by the NRDC because the industry was geared up to fight mandatory standards.