Identifying a potential opportunity to save energy – in televisions

We are always looking at novel ways to save energy. It is certainly important that we need to know more about consumers and how they use their appliances. Chris Mooney writes in the Washington Post about a suggestion that power companies should create incentives for the purchase of new and highly efficient TVs among that select group of people who spend the most time each day in front of the television. But first, you need to identify who they are. There are some important lessons here.


The U.S. has as many televisions as humans. Here’s how both can waste less energy

The United States is a country of 323 million people — and, as of 2013, some 338 million televisions, according to one estimate. We are, to put it bluntly, highly entertained, and we use a lot of electricity in the process. Four to five percent of total household power gets zapped into these devices, according to the Department of Energy.

You could argue from these figures — and others — that Americans simply watch too much television. Maybe so. But it’s important to recognize that some Americans watch way more than others, and therein lies a potential opportunity to save energy.

Such is the finding of a new study in Energy Policy, by Ashok Sekar and two colleagues from the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which proposes an intriguing way to lower the nation’s overall home energy use. Namely, it suggests that power companies should create incentives for the purchase of new and highly efficient TVs among that select group of people who spend the most time each day in front of the television.

“If you take the high watching group…they are approximately watching the television for 7.7 hours,” said Sekar. The research was conducted based on data from the American Time Use Survey, which is carried out each year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Examining this survey, Sekar and his colleagues found that 14 percent of Americans are very high TV users. These individuals tend to be unemployed or with part time employment status, less educated, and are often older than 65. Despite their relatively small numbers, their habits mean that they consume 34 percent of all television electricity, or 31 gigawatt hours worth per day (equivalent to 1 billion watts of constant energy for 31 hours).

So that means that if you were two swap out the televisions of the high users for more energy efficient models, you would save 7.1 times as much electricity as you would if you did so for those people in the group of low television users, according to the study.

“If you can target people, you can improve your cost effectiveness for sure,” says Sekar. It isn’t just the highest users — for the middle range of TV watchers, those who watch about 3.5 hours a day, changing out their TVs would be 2.2 times as effective at saving energy, compared with switching the TVs of the lowest users.

The research is pitched, in part, to power companies who run a large number of energy efficiency programs, in which they provide incentives for their customers to adopt new appliances or practices that reduce their overall use and, therefore, cut demand on the electricity system. The research suggests that a major area of investment in these programs ought to be TVs, which Sekar says does not actually appear to be a major focus right now.

The idea proposed in the paper is “kind of common sense, in a way,” says Jennifer Amann, buildings program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. But she adds that power companies would have to pursue such a program in a way that stresses issues of equity, given the reality that more well-to-do people tend to also avail themselves more often of utility company programs that help them save money.

“It shouldn’t be controversial, especially if we could do a better job of making sure that our programs are equitable in other ways, are reaching everyone,” Amann says.

Sekar says that you don’t necessarily have to give a rebate on a TV only to some people — you could offer one to everyone, but also concentrate a lot of effort on making sure that high TV users learn about it.

“With 300 million televisions in America, almost one for every person, even small changes can add up quickly nationally, especially if the highest users switch to the most efficient televisions on the market and adjust settings to ensure their TVs aren’t needlessly wasting electricity,” says Noah Horowitz, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Center for Energy Efficiency Standards. “After all, every energy efficient TV helps reduce the need to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity to run it.”

Swapping out less efficient TVs among the highest users could also have a big impact due to the daily cycle of television use. Across the country, overall TV watching increases over the course of the day and peaks at 7:45 pm. That means that people tend to use their televisions more and more at a time of day when electricity use overall is very high, and therefore, when a unit of electricity is fairly expensive on the grid.

So reducing usage at this time could save a lot of money — the study estimates that in the territory of the large California utility Pacific Gas and Electric, swapping out the TVs of the highest users would save $ 2 to $ 3 million annually for the company, which means that it should be willing to pay $ 21 to $ 33 as a subsidy to each of these customers to get them to switch, the study calculates.

Granted, it may feel odd to seemingly encourage more TV watching — but Sekar tends to take an economist’s approach to the matter. “A better way to think about the morality question would be to consider the time budget a household would allocate for watching television,” he wrote by email. “If they would anyway spend X hours of time on watching television why not make it energy efficient?”

Energy efficient television choices do abound. And they really matter, in that TVs are also getting larger, based on research conducted for the Consumer Electronics Association, and larger TVs are watched more. And now, ultra high-definition TVs may be a big new energy consumer, according to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But new televisions are feature some very highly energy efficient models. According to an analysis by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, between 2006 and 2012, TV screens got 30 percent bigger even as they came to use 57 percent less electricity — and became much cheaper to boot. The NRDC report also finds that even among ultra high-definition TVs, there were “dramatic differences” in energy consumption.

But that also means that if people have old model televisions and watch them a lot, it’s likely to be a double whammy for energy use. Which, again, argues for the importance of getting the old models replaced by newer ones.

“If you look at the American time use survey, the activity that is increasing at the fastest rate is television watching,” says Sekar.

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