Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Try to imagine how much electricity is contained in 18 billion kilowatt hours. Six power plants operating round-the-clock would take a year to produce that much. And all the households in Colorado would need a year to use it up.

That’s how much energy Americans consume a year to needlessly power the energy-gorging devices they use to tap into cable, satellite and other pay TV services, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. (The study was financed by the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Having come to a similar conclusion as the council about the overall appetites of these set-top boxes, the Department of Energy has plans to regulate the devices. This would be a helpful move, if done effectively. Given the limitations of regulation, electric utilities and consumer groups should consider actions that would encourage pay TV providers to stop the energy drain voluntarily.

The problem with set-top boxes is that, as currently deployed, they are always running, even when people think they’ve turned them off. (In most cases, the off button merely dims the clock.) Two-thirds of the total energy they burn is consumed when they are not in use, the NRDC study found.

A typical household setup -- one high-definition TV set-top box plus one high-definition digital video recorder (DVR) -- uses 7 percent more electricity than a new, 21-cubic-foot Energy Star refrigerator. Powering such a system costs on average $4 a month, not much for the individual consumer but plenty when multiplied by the estimated 82 million households with boxes.

Much more efficient systems exist. In Europe, Sky Broadcasting gives its customers a box that has light- and deep-sleep states and takes only 90 seconds to wake from full slumber. In the U.S., pay-TV vendors, like cable and satellite TV companies, offer no such options.

Efficiency Plans

The Energy Department aims to address the problem by putting in place mandatory efficiency standards for set-top boxes, as it does for many other appliances. (Manufacturers of shower heads, for instance, must ensure that their products use no more than 2.5 gallons of water per minute.) The department is accepting public comments until Sept. 30, after which its plan could still be amended. It could take as long as five years for standards to take effect, and they would apply only to new boxes.

In any case, regulations might not solve the problem. Energy Department efficiency rules apply to a device’s manufacturers. Makers of late-model set-top boxes used in the U.S. already equip them with a light-sleep option. But when cable companies and other pay-TV vendors -- who buy the boxes and lease them to their customers -- add on their software, they rarely activate that mode because they aren’t the ones footing the electric bill. For a government standard to be meaningful, it would have to ensure that the box remains efficient after it’s delivered to the consumer.

Another way to address the issue, using a market mechanism, is through utility incentives. These are programs, typically required by public-utility commissions and run by utilities, that fund energy conservation initiatives as a way to offset the need to build additional power plants. Utilities could offer pay-TV vendors rewards for reducing energy use by activating the light-sleep functions on existing boxes and adopting new boxes that also have a deep sleep mode.

Consumer groups can also bring pressure on the pay-TV industry. Vendors may worry that, unlike Europeans, Americans won’t tolerate a 90-second wait for their set-top box to wake from a scheduled deep sleep (should they, say, decide to watch TV at 4 a.m.). But consumers should at least have the choice of an energy-efficient box. (On the Sky Broadcasting box, the consumer has the option to disable deep sleep.)

With sufficient motivation, set-top-box engineers may eventually figure out ways to significantly reduce that 90-second delay, just as creators of the iPad delivered something close to instant computer startup. In the meantime, Americans might want to consider that theoretical, wee-hour wait a small price to pay for 18 billion kilowatt hours a year of wasted electricity.

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