Energy Vampires and how to slay them

Last week on GTM’s Interchange podcast, Shayle Kann and Stephen Lacey sat down to talk about energy vampires—the devices in your home that stay on 24/7, costing you energy and money.

They led with some powerful figures—fixing these devices could save you 85,000 cups of coffee per year! Even at Folger’s prices, that’s like $3,500 a year, something doesn’t add up… They go on to clarify that the total energy saved is enough to *brew* 85,000 cups of coffee per year. An NRDC study found that these always-on devices consumed 1/4 of all the energy in homes, and put the average cost at $165/year.

Top-line: Does this matter?

I think this falls into the same category as a lot of energy efficiency programs. When you add it all up, it matters a lot! If we could eliminate or at least reduce 1/4 of all residential energy use by focusing on these devices, that’s a big deal!

But on the other hand… $165/year, $14/month. That’s certainly not an insignificant amount of money for a family, and who wouldn’t like a little extra cash in their pocket? But when it comes down to it, consumers care so little about their energy bills they’re just not likely to change their behavior based on these cost savings.

Lots of little things, one big problem

An even bigger issue here is that there’s no one “quick fix” that solves this issue. The load isn’t coming from any one device, but all the smart speakers, IoT enabled refrigerators and door bells, and some electronics chargers.

The episode goes on to focus on DVRs as one egregious example. I certainly remember having a DVR in my apartment in grad school, and that thing was 1) always on and 2) really hot. Hot electronics means lots of power.

I summed up my thoughts in a little tweetstorm this week:

Click through to see the rest of the tweets

As I discussed in the tweet thread, with the help of a seasoned hardware engineer we found that you might be able to squeeze some efficiencies out of the device when it’s in use — maybe reduce power consumption by half. Bigger gains can be had by enabling true power-save modes. This might bring average consumption down to 5 or 6 W, compared to the current 25 W load. But ultimately all of these gains together might save a customer $20/year, and would require relatively significant engineering and design changes to the device. Consumers simply don’t have the time or will to care about small changes like that. And, ultimately the cable companies and device manufacturers just aren’t incentivized to care.

My colleague Paul responded that, hey, this doesn’t matter in the long run because no one is going to be using DVRs in a while anyway.

Paul is almost certainly right about our online viewing trends. (The energy consumption of streaming vs. cable needs a whole new post.)

But for me, the real story here isn’t about the DVR or any one specific device, but more on “whack-a-mole” scenario we’re facing.

The Solutions

In cases like these, it’s hard to see any solution for reducing the energy waste other than better regulations like Energy Star, which sets limits for how much power these devices can consume and provides at least some information to consumers about that consumption. (DVRs are of course a little different since most consumers don’t have a choice about which one their cable company ships.) Energy Star isn’t a perfect solution, but we can look to other devices like refrigerators and air conditioners for clear examples where the program has worked.

How about a price on carbon?

A functioning system of pricing carbon most likely won’t fix the split incentives and low household-level payoffs for vampire devices, but it would at least make sure that the energy being wasted is less likely to be polluting.