The price of idleness

By Fred Pearce Electrical gadgets such as CD players, videos and burglar alarms are consuming more energy in stand-by mode than when they are actually being used. Marla Sanchez and her colleagues from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, tested more than 50 small electrical appliances, from electric blankets and computers to coffee percolators, waffle irons, doorbells, electric mowers, VCRs, aquarium heaters, electric toothbrushes and pool pumps. In the current issue of Energy Policy (vol 26, p 58), they report that about half of all consumer electronics energy is used in stand-by mode. This costs American consumers $1 billion a year in wasted energy. The researchers say that while electronic devices are lying dormant, running their clocks, maintaining internal memories or displaying their settings, they consume around 40 terawatt hours of electricity in the US every year—enough to power a city such as Chicago or London. Many machines use almost as much power on stand-by as when working. For example, it takes 15 watts to play a typical CD, but an average of 11 watts to keep it on stand-by. Satellite TV systems use 15 watts when active and 14 watts on stand-by, and security systems 22 watts when active and 18 watts on stand-by. Given the long hours these systems spend idling, each uses far more power in stand-by mode than when actually working. Bad design is largely to blame, says Sanchez. In a separate survey of CD players last year, her colleague Wolfgang Huber found that two machines with similar features used 28 watts and 2 watts respectively on stand-by. “For most products, we believe that stand-by power can be reduced to one watt or less,” says Sanchez. She backs proposals to set up a national labelling system to promote machines that meet this standard. Such a system could reduce standby power consumption in the US by 50 per cent, says co-author Alan Meier—more than 20 terawatt hours per year. Last month, electronics company Philips announced the launch of a device that can dramatically reduce the power used in stand-by mode (This Week, 11 July, p 7). The study also found that small electrical appliances consume a fifth of the electricity used in a typical American home and will account for almost all of the expected increase in the coming decade. Again, bad design is a major factor—manufacturers have not kept up with the energy efficiency improvements made in many larger pieces of domestic equipment. A water-bed heater can use more power than a modern refrigerator,
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