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About Those Electricity-Sucking Set-Tops

TheNew York Times ran an article this Sunday on power consumption by set-top boxes.

A casual reader may have come away believing that U.S. households expend more energy on cable TV boxes than on cooling — which isn’t correct.

The piece cited research from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an “environmental action group,” finding that one HD DVR plus one HD set-top together suck up more energy per year (446 Kilowatt hours) than a 21-cubic-foot EnergyStar-compliant refrigerator (415 Kilowatt hours).

That’s plausible, when you consider many people never turn off their set-tops and Americans watch 158 hours and 47 minutes of TV per month (according to Nielsen Q1 2011 data).

But the NYTimes also says in the lead paragraph that “some typical home entertainment configurations” consume more power than “even some central air-conditioning systems.”

Really? There’s no mention of air-conditioning in the NRDC study. It’s not clear where that particular factoid came from.

According to figures provided at the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar website, 29% of the average U.S. annual energy bill goes toward heating, 17% toward cooling and 14% for water heating. Meanwhile, only 4% of energy consumption is attributable to TVs and other electronics and 11% in the “other” category includes external power supplies, set-tops, telephony and ceiling fans, according to the 2009 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

I don’t doubt cable, satellite and telco TV providers — and their equipment providers — can and should do better with respect to deploying more energy-efficient boxes. But let’s put the facts in the right context.

Note that providers including DirecTV, Verizon and AT&T have taken steps to introduce boxes that suck up less power (see FiOS TV To Test ‘Greener’ Motorola Set-Tops and DirecTV, AT&T Set-Tops Certified For Energy Star Program).

And as the NRDC study notes, IP-based set-tops — which cable operators are migrating toward — consume much less power than their tuner-rich, hard-drive-laden cousins.

AT&T’s IP-based HD DVR uses 18 watts in “power on” mode and 12 watts in “light sleep” state, versus more than 30 watts for most traditional HD DVR models and more than 50 watts for a couple of satellite HD DVR boxes. (The NRDC study didn’t identify the providers or equipment vendors who were the biggest power pigs.)

Also, the SCTE last year launched a program looking to help the cable industry provide better energy management solutions (see SCTE Broadens ‘Green’ Initiative To Include Disaster Preparedness).


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