$80bn: How much we're wasting on devices in standby mode

Gadgets currently constitute more than 40 percent of ICT's energy demand, says the International Energy Agency, and most of it's consumed when they're sitting idle.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer on

Datacentres have become the whipping boy when it comes to the tech world's energy concerns, but according to the International Energy Agency, the billions of devices in standby mode are a much bigger problem.

A new report by the IEA warns that the inefficient standby mode used by the world's 14 billion devices is responsible for around $80bn in wasted energy costs. It's a figure that's set to explode over the next decade as billions more network-enabled devices come online — and for the most part, spend their time waiting in standby mode in order to maintain a network connection.

According to the agency, networked hardware, including smartphones, tablets, game consoles, computers, printers, routers, and the growing legion of smart devices such as TVs, consumed 616 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy between them last year. The IEA estimates that 400TWh of that was wasted due to inefficient 'network standby' mode.

"The problem is not that these devices are often in standby mode, but rather that they typically use much more power than they should to maintain a connection and communicate with the network," the IEA's executive director Maria van der Hoeven said. "Just by using today's best available technology, such devices could perform exactly the same tasks in standby while consuming around 65 percent less power."

Games consoles are particularly bad at conserving energy in standby mode, using up to 80 percent of all its energy just to maintain a network connection. Likewise, set-top boxes in standby mode operate as if they are on, regardless of whether anyone's actually watching the TV. In the US alone, they consume 18TWh of electricity — or the equivalent of six 500MW coal-fired power plants and more than Iceland's total electricity consumption.

New technology and consumer demand for smart TVs are also running counter to existing policy choices that once helped reduce standby energy for older TVs to 1W or under per hour.

"The case of TVs brings up another important challenge: the fact that market forces can undermine energy efficiency gains… Over the same period, however, manufacturers either created or responded to consumer demand for smart, network‑enabled TVs. And standby energy consumption of TVs is once again on the rise," the IEA report says.

It also highlights that "some internet-connected TVs draw in the region of 30W when actively used and 25W when not actively used."

The IEA attributes between 40 percent and 80 percent of wasted standby power to poor design or inappropriate use of devices, with the current estimated cost for US consumers of standby power at $10bn a year, while Australians racked up AUD$1.1bn a year or $236 a year per household.

One bright note from the report is that smartphones may show the way forward, since they can provide network connectivity for 0.5 milliwatts (mW).

Current forecasts by Cisco suggest there will be as many as 50 billion connected things by 2020 with the IEA predicting that demand for energy will double over the next decade.

"Without concerted measures to improve energy efficiency, network-enabled devices used in
homes and offices will use 1 140TWh a year by 2025 (more than the current electricity demand of Russia)."

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