Energy & Environment

From big energy consumption (E) to lower energy consumption (e)

Elizabeth Bailey

Very little shocks me anymore. But I was shocked – SHOCKED! – to discover that one space in our house which takes up only about 5% of the floor space draws more than 20% of the KWH our house consumes in a day.

Can you guess which room this is? It is the space my family calls the “home office.”

Misery loves company and, it turns out, I am in good company. According to a 2009 Energy Information Administration survey, 30% of the energy an average U.S. home consumes goes to powering electronic gadgets, small appliances, and lighting.  That figure is up nearly 10 percentage points from 1993, when it was roughly 20%. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, much of this trend is attributable to the increase in energy-consuming gadgets in the home.

In our home office, I knew something was powering the blue, green, and red glowing lights when the house is dark, but I was once again shocked to discover that a large chunk of the KWH these electronic gadgets use are consumed when we’re not there.

When I shared my misery with friends and colleagues, several gloated that their entire home consumed just slightly more KWH a day than my home office. I was shocked again!

How do they do it? In addition to replacing dated refrigerators with brand-new Energy Star refrigerators and making capital investments in whole house weatherization strategies like window replacement, insulation, and caulking, their advice echoed the advice of other experts: unplug electronic gadgets such as televisions, cable boxes, computer monitors, printers, and chargers when not in use.

Crawling behind sofas and under tables to plug and unplug the television and various other gadgets reeks of serious inconvenience to me, but attaching gadgets to an easy-to-reach power strip with an on-off switch serves the same purpose with much less hassle (though still not hassle-free).

power strip/surge protector

A colleague of mine, David Levine, recently wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about phantom power, the power that appliances continue to draw even when they are not in use. In his op-ed, he proposes manufacturers be required to list how much phantom power a device consumes in order to provide consumers more information about energy use. He also points out that European regulations require new appliances to draw no more than 1 watt of power in standby mode.

Despite decades of efforts and billions of dollars directed at energy efficiency, we know (shockingly) little about which investments and/or behavioral nudges will give us the biggest bang for the energy efficiency buck. We also know (shockingly) little about how well current energy efficiency regulations and programs work.

To answer those questions, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation recently funded The E2e Project, which I and my colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley – Catherine Wolfram – and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Michael Greenstone and Chris Knittel – founded, to bring rigorous, state-of-the-art evaluation techniques to energy efficiency programs.

The mission of E2e is to unite top researchers in order to create a cheaper and greener future.

And at the same time, the mission is a personal one as I continue to learn how to get the biggest bang for my energy efficient buck at home.

Cross-posted from Energy Economics Exchange (tag line: Research that Informs Business and Social Policy), a blog of the Energy Institute at Haas.

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Comments to "From big energy consumption (E) to lower energy consumption (e)":
    • Ding Ding

      I love the term “phantom power”! It creates such a vivid picture of a masked ghost sneaking into the house when no one is there and stealing khw….

      Tanks for sharing this! I’m now very curious that at our 1500-staff office building, what would happen if we try to induce behaviorial change to reduce phantom power consumption…

      Let’s see if I can do a E2e in real life….

      [Report abuse]

    • Calvin

      I have to say I am very skeptical about phantom power. I have measured numerous devices with a power meter around my and other’s homes. All devices I have tested made in the last 5-10 years draw a completely negligible amount of power.

      I think it is fair to say that the advice about unplugging your devices is somewhat dated as devices used to draw significantly more standby power before this issue started to receive attention. This advice continues to be endlessly repeated by energy savings advocates, even though the impact is small.

      Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s energy division agrees: “Frankly, there are more productive ways to save energy with an investment of an hour.”

      The main devices which draw significant power around the clock are things like modems and cable boxes. As others have noted, these are not easily unplugged since they take a significant amount of time to reconnect to the network.

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    • Thomas

      Forget on/off switches. Some plug manufacturers make $25 sockets with an “energy saving outlet,” which save energy automatically by turning off TV peripherals when you turn off your TV; a master outlet detects when your main peripheral (TV) is on or off and controls power to five controlled outlets for DVD players, game consoles, etc… so convenient! Add a timer to stop your internet between midnight and 6Am and you’re done

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    • Nils

      wd, In all seriousness, I propose yet another IT upgrade to surmount this problem.

      Can you install some sort of timed or remote device to power-up in advance of use? Say U-verse takes 30 minutes to come on-line; there ought to be a device that can either start up 30 minutes before you need it, or you can phone from work to power up and be ready when you get home (if no-one is home). This would be connected between the power-strip and the wall socket, or better yet be an improved power strip.

      Surely someone makes something like this!

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    • wd

      Sometimes the phantom loads are easily managed with the power strip. An example is Direct TV. We routinely power off the TV and the black box at the end of the day and the power strip is off all night.

      Recently, we changed to ATT U-Verse. Both services have good picture quality. The ATT, however, is not as easily restarted at the beginning of the day. The ATT technology is newer. You’d think the newer technology would be more energy efficient.

      After years of steady decline in our energy consumption, we now find ourselves compromising on the phantom load of the receiver just so we don’t have to endure the lengthy startups ATT requires. It seems to me ATT has some redesigning to do.

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