TV set-top boxes are BIG energy hogs

Worried about high utility costs? Your cable or satellite box may be to
blame. And if your box is a digital video recorder, that’s even worse.

The opposite of energy efficiency, it’s surprising how much power one little cable box can consume. Over 80% of Americans subscribe to pay TV, resulting in 160 million set-top boxes installed in their homes. These boxes cost $3 billion to operate because the boxes never go to sleep. Consumers have little choice regarding what television set-top box the service provider installs and how much energy it uses.
energy efficiency
Even when they are not showing or recording content, they consume power as if they were in use since they never power down. A study discovered that the average cable high-definition video recorders (HD-DVR) use more than half the energy of a typical new refrigerator and even more than a new flat panel TV. These set-top boxes consumed nearly 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2010. That’s the equivalent annual energy output of nine average coal-fired power plants. Two-thirds of their energy consumption occurs when they are not in use

Digital Video Recorders are quickly rising in popularity. In fact, since 2007, the percentage of boxes with DVR capability has risen from 10 percent to 35 percent. DVRs tend to use about 40 percent more energy each year than their non-DVR counterparts. Improved designs of theses DVR boxes could reduce their energy by 30 percent to 50 percent by 2020. Some options for reducing their consumption include: a) shifting to whole-home solutions that have a main box connected to the primary TV, but allowing other TVs in the home to access the video content stored on the main box, and b) using boxes that automatically power down to drastically lower power levels when not in use.

In 2010, NRDC and Ecos studied the energy usage of set-top boxes in three applications: (1) pay-TV boxes used in the United States over the past two years, (2) pay-TV boxes in Europe, and (3) some emerging video streaming boxes like AppleTV.

According to the findings, U.S. set-top boxes use almost as much power when not in use as they do when in use. However, the top European service providers have begun to solve this issue in their latest boxes. Pay-TV set-top box energy consumption has remained steady. Efficiency gains at the component level have counteracted by the increased consumption of advanced features. Satellite HD-DVRs used slightly more power than their cable counterparts. Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) enables the use of lower-power boxes and is quickly gaining market share compared to cable and satellite. The most efficient U.S. HD-DVRs found were AT&T’s IPTV boxes which used approximately 18 watts when in use and 12 watts when in light sleep state. European IPTV HD-DVRs consumed less than 10 watts when is use.

More and more consumers are obtaining their video content from broadband video streaming services including Netflix, AppleTv and GoogleTV. AppleTV proved to be most efficient using only 3 watts when turned on and less than 1 watt while in Sleep mode. In the future, it is likely that streaming capabilities will be integrated into TVs enabling them to stream video from sources such as Netflix and Hulu.

However, it is unlikely consumers will move away from DVRs anytime soon. It’s a good thing the industry is moving toward more efficient multi-room solutions that will require much less energy. Multi-room technologies allow users to schedule recordings one time on a central DVR and enable them to view them on any TV in the home. The industry is also developing low-power thin-client boxes that will go into low-power sleep states when not in use. By implementing multi-room technology with low-power thin-client boxes, reducing On mode power levels and employing better power management solutions, a reduction in energy consumption of approximately 70 percent is possible.

Service providers are promoting energy efficient standards that would use specially-designed TVs as clients, eliminating the need for thin-client boxes all together.

NRDC’s study of the energy consumption of set-top boxes illustrated that unless more energy efficient designs are developed, the electric bill used to run these devices will increase by an alarming $3.5 billion per year by 2020. Utilizing energy-saving technologies has the potential to save the amount of energy as is generated by seven large power plants by 2020.

A few recommendations for reducing energy consumption are:

Meeting Energy Star Requirements
Manufacturers are encouraged to design products that meet or exceed ENERGY STAR Version 4.0.

Employing Automatic Low-Power States
Future products should enter a low power state when the user isn’t watching TV, recording a show or downloading a show.

Replacing Outdated and Inefficient Set-Top Boxes
Service providers should offer new energy-efficient set-top boxes and implement changes to improve efficiency. Service providers are encouraged to switch to multi-room solutions that use thin-client boxes.

Further technological innovations can include multi-room thin-client boxes to achieve deep sleep with short wake time. Also, enabling the connecting of devices together such as the television, set-top box and DVD player to share power state information would help in more effective power management. Data connections should operate at lower-power levels when not in use. Lastly, service providers should be able to wake set-top boxes from deep sleep remotely over the network.

Regulatory policies could be put into place to increase set-top box energy efficiency. For example, policy makers could establish minimum energy efficiency standards for set-top boxes at the state or national level. The energy efficiency community should confirm that efficiency requirements are built into the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Plan that is looking at creating a retail market for set-top boxes across different service providers. Local cable providers should require the boxes to meet ENERGY STAR Version 4.0 or better. Finally, policy makers and utilities should consider sponsoring system-level efficiency studies to improve understanding on the data center and network energy requirements of video-on-demand.

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