Powering down to save energy need not be a turn-off

7 January 2013

Less than a decade ago, televisions in homes around the world consumed significant electricity whether they were turned on or off. But in 1999 the IEA spearheaded the “1-watt” initiative that led to the average new television’s standby consumption falling from about 5 watts to half a watt, saving energy for countries, money for consumers and carbon from the atmosphere.

After manufacturers developed “instant-on” televisions in the late 1960s, the trend toward standby defaults in consumer electronics spread, and soon “inactive” machines were drawing 10% of total residential electricity consumption. Even as the number of such devices mushroomed, though, new low-power technologies reduced the share of the electricity used in standby modes.

But the recent development of “smart” appliances and other devices that connect to the Internet has created a new challenge.

As homes are becoming increasingly digital, with more than 2 billion of global citizens hooked into the Internet, energy consumption is increasing. Now come smart appliances that hook into the Internet or are otherwise linked to a network, with as many as 100 billion expected in homes worldwide by 2020. Because they are part of a network, they need to stay “live” to receive and transmit data and so cannot be easily powered down to save energy. Instead new technological solutions are needed to reduce their nonstop appetite for electricity. For instance, in the United States, more than 160 million television set-top boxes were consuming energy constantly in 2010. Even when no one is watching the television or recording a broadcast, nearly all such devices operate at near full power as they maintain an active network connection, ready to receive and record shows. In that one year, their standby consumption was the equivalent of the output of the largest nuclear power plant in the United States and cost their owners a total of USD 2 billion.

Similarly, cutting-edge appliances, from refrigerators to security systems, hook into networks that link a succession of machines to transmit everything from power consumption to grocery orders. As their network presence requires them to stay active, many networked appliances do not power down to lower energy-consuming modes. Instead, like televisions before the IEA 1-watt initiative led to improvement, they use electricity full-tilt even when not delivering services. Already, the average home in the United States has four network-connected products, which is expected to quintuple by 2015, and smart appliances that can be operated remotely by cell phones are entering homes rapidly around the world, especially in the Republic of Korea and China. As more and different appliances are networked, current low-consumption machines will revert to high standby consumption.

Consumption related to information communication technology (ICT) is already more than 5 percent of total final global electricity consumption – 10 percent in the European Union. Total ICT consumption could double by 2022 and be three times the 2010 rate by 2030, when the number of network-connected products tops 100 billion and system bandwidths and the volume of data expand rapidly.

Reducing standby power use in networked devices requires solutions based on how each product functions within the network. A networked washing machine functions differently in standby from a desktop computer or a videogame console. And because consumers value features, functions and quick start-up times, manufacturers often lack incentives to increase efficiency. But there are successes in individual sectors. Because cell phone consumers want nonstop network access but also long battery life, producers have reduced power consumption when a phone is in standby mode.

To combat energy losses, the IEA released its voluntary Guiding Principles of Energy Efficiency in Networked Products in 2007 and will publish new policy guidance for governments and other stakeholders in 2013. Progress is under way. Already, the Republic of Korea has two mandatory programs that set out targets for networked standby modes: the e-Standby Program and the Energy Efficiency Labelling Program.  The voluntary US programme Energy Star is starting to include provisions to measure and monitor networked standby modes in televisions and displays, while the European Union has introduced a Code of Conduct on Energy Efficiency of Broadband Equipment, and is currently amending regulations to include provisions to ensure that network connected projects include power management features and that networked standby power consumption is reduced.

As more and more products are network-connected and numbers of net-enabled services and applications are rapidly increasing, the quantity of information that is transferred and stored is growing at a rapid rate. This has created yet another energy challenge – the growing global energy consumption of data centres.  In 2010, such facilities, which include server farms, used as much as 1.5% of electricity worldwide – and approximately 2% in just the United States – with annual consumption growth for centres and networks expected to be 12%. Because customers expect immediate responses at each click of a mouse, technology companies maintain that they cannot regularly shift inactive servers at their data centres to low-power standby mode, which means that as much as 90% of the electricity drawn by data centres powers inactive devices.

The New York Times reported this fall that a small number of large technology companies, including Facebook and Google, had extensively re-engineered their software and cooling systems to cut their data centres’ electricity use. Facebook and Google, which like some ICT companies use renewable energy for part of their power needs, also redesigned their hardware to improve efficiency.

With so many players involved, and such rapid development of digital systems, addressing network standby is proving to be one of the most challenging areas in energy efficiency.   The International Energy Agency is working with both the IEA Implementing Agreement for a Co-operating Programme on Efficient Electrical End-Use Equipment  and the Super-efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment programme, a Clean Energy Ministerial initiative, to develop global solutions.  

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