CEA Study Adds Fuel to Power Consumption Brouhaha

And you wonder why customers are confused!?

The Consumer Electronics Association issued a 158-page "Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in U.S. Homes" report on Monday, declaring that residential electricity consumption for consumer electronics devices is down 9% since 2010.  Deep into the report are data showing that cable TV set top boxes consume 128 kilowatt hours (kWh/y) per year, compared to standalone STBs (such as Roku, Apple TV or other devices), which drink just over one-third that amount of juice: 45 kWh/y Satellite and telco STBs require about 16% less energy than the cable boxes, according to this study.

What makes the CEA study most interesting is that it comes barely a week after the kerfuffle started last week when the Los Angeles Times published a "power hog" story  entitled "Cable TV boxes become 2nd biggest energy users in many homes,"  after air conditioning equipment. 

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association responded quickly with a blog on Friday: "LA Times Gets it Wrong on Cable Box Energy Efficiency", citing cable industry projects to reduce power consumption. NCTA even cites the "forthcoming" CEA study and points readers to a CEA blog , also posted on Friday, by CEA VP-Technology Policy Doug Johnson, who dissed the newspaper report but said CEA "welcome[s] the growing public dialog on this topic."

While the kind words between NCTA and CEA are pleasant, the looming issue remains sizeable. For example, the report cites STB variables, such as DVRs, multi-room video servers and High Definition capability, that affect energy consumption. As Americans rely more on digital devices for entertainment and information, electric consumption is a costly part of the equation.  The CEA study, conducted the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems demonstrates the scale of the power problem.  Both organizations acknowledge they are participating in several projects seeking to curtail electricity consumption in their environments.

Yet the CEA/Fraunhofer study underscores the scale and challenges.  On the efficiency side, the  report says that CE devices represent about 12% of total residential energy consumption.  Within that segment, TV sets account for 30%, STBs 18%, computers 13%.  Overall, U.S. households used nearly 3.8 billion CE devices in 46 technology categories, consuming 169 terawatt hours during 2013. By comparison, in 2010, when CEA conducted a similar survey, there were 2.9 billion devices in 35 categories using 193 terawatt hours per year  - hence the electrical usage drop.

Beyond STBs, cable ecosystems products identified in the study include Internet access tools such as Integrated Access Devices, cable modems and routers.  The study also lists videogame consoles - which are often used for online access and come in right after STBs for their large energy thirst.

Overall, the study also offers evidence for why some cable operators see a synergisticopportunity in getting into the electricity distribution business themselves. In particular, the fast-growing category of mobile/wireless devices. Keeping tablets and smartphone charged  provides a tantalizing segment of the AEC (Annual Electrical Consumption), as described in the CEA report.  

The collegial stances of NCTA and CEA regarding the L.A. Times' allegations are commendable.  Yet, there's always the prospect that the Fraunhofer Center's analyses will show up in future policy discussions in a less friendly forum. The report is laden with data and field reports that can easily be adapted in finger-pointing claims about conservation commitments and the value of specific devices.  Indeed, the study provides a powerful cornucopia of usage data for everyone in future discussions.

Whatever triggered the LA Times story last week (my guess is that it was some misinterpretation of a leaked version of the Fraunhofer Center's report or just a noisy politician's platform), the issue has now come front and center.  The heavily annotated report  with its heavy-duty math equations to show usage methodology offers plenty of ammunition for all sides in upcoming policy reviews.

So STB power is not confusing just for customers and subscribers (if they're interested in such an arcane topic). 

It's also mind-bending for industry planners and regulatory decision-makers.

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.