Now we know, thanks to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, that your super-snazzy set-top box and DVR combo that means you will never have to miss another episode of Two Men and a Baby is costing you more money, wasting energy and generating carbon emissions.
With more than 80% of Americans now subscribing to cable, the numbers, taken as a whole, grow pretty big, the NRDC says:
In 2010, the electricity required to operate all U.S. set-top boxes was equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, resulted in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and cost households more than $3 billion.
They aren’t as startling on a house-by-house basis–each box, on average, costs about $18.75 a year to operate, depending on local electricity prices. But much of that money, it turns out, is wasted. About two-thirds of the energy consumed by the set-top is used when no one is watching TV or recording programs.
In a press release, NRDC’s efficiency guru, Noah Horowitz, says:
Set-top boxes are the ultimate home energy vampires, silently sucking significant amounts of energy and money when nobody’s using them. The consumer, who pays the electric bill, deserves technologies without hidden costs.
On his blog, Noah goes on to say:
The biggest finding from our field work was that the only way to really turn these boxes off is to unplug them — not an attractive option. For almost all the boxes we tested, hitting the power button simply dims the clock or display. For a typical DVR, instead of consuming 30 Watts when on, the box used 29 Watts, only the difference of one Watt.
The problem here, as it is with many wasteful practices in the economy, is a split incentive between the owner and the user. (Economists call this a principle-agent problem.) It’s the reason why a landlord doesn’t care how inefficient an air conditioner is if the tenant pays the bill, and why few people dining out on an open-ended expense account pay much attention to the bill. In this case, the cable operator (Comcast, Time Warner) or phone company (Verizon, AT&T) that buys the set-top box doesn’t pay the electric bill, and so they have no reason to design, build, buy or demand a more efficient box. Markets aren’t working the way they should.